In 1781, Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman became the first African-American woman to win her freedom from slavery through a court of law. The case was held in Massachusetts, which coincidentally, became the first state in the Union to abolish slavery; many say that Mumbet’s case is the reason.
One day, Hannah Ashley, a white woman and Mumbet's owner, raised a heated shovel to strike either Mumbet's daughter or her sister Lizzy, and instead, hit Mumbet, who was protecting her. The hit left a bad wound that Mumbet refused to cover, in order to show everyone how terrible the treatment was on the plantation. As a result, Mumbet hired a lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick, to gain freedom for herself and a male slave named Brom. The male slave was added to give light to the case during a time when women’s rights were unheard. The Brom and Bett vs. Ashley trial took place in August 1781 at the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington. Both slaves won their freedom and Mumbet agreed to work for the Sedgwicks’ indefinitely.
Mumbet would become known as a popular healer, midwife and a nurse. Her story was shared by author, Catherine Sedgwick, Theodore’s wife and passed down through generations. Mumbet and her daughter Betsy retired in Stockbridge until her death in 1829. She was buried in the Sedgwick family plot.
Ironically, Theodore Sedgwick is the 4th great-grandfather of actress Kyra Sedgwick, star of the hit television show, “The Closer” on TNT. The connection was found via the PBS show “Finding Our Roots,” with Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.
There is currently an effort underway to immortalize the legacy of Elizabeth Mumbet Freeman on a U.S. postal stamp.