In 1781, Elizabeth “Mum Bett” 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. Mum Bett’s case was instrumental in forcing the Commonwealth to carry out its own constitution.
Mum Bett was born about 1744 in New York. She and her younger sister, Lizzie, were sold to Colonel John Ashley.
One day, Annetje Hogeboom, the wife of John Ashley, raised a heated shovel to strike Lizzie, and instead, hit Mum Bett, who was protecting her with her arm. The hit left a bad wound that Mum Bett refused to cover, to give proof to conditions on the plantation. As a result, Mum Bett hired a lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick, to gain her freedom. A male slave named Brom 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 Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman agreed to work for the Sedgwicks’ indefinitely.
Mum Bett Freeman 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. Mum Bett 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 television show, “The Closer” which aired on the TNT newtork. The connection was found via the PBS show “Finding Our Roots,” with Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and is now retold in his latest presentation “The African Americans” now airing on PBS.
There is currently an effort underway to immortalize the legacy of Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman on a U.S. Postal Stamp.