The unsung legacy of a Black woman who fearlessly fought for her liberty in court ahead of the Emancipation Proclamation is being memorialized. On Sunday, a statue honoring Elizabeth Freeman will be unveiled in Sheffield, Massachusetts.
Freeman’s journey exemplifies the power of resilience in the face of oppression. Born in Columbia County, New York, during the 1700s with the birth name Mum Bett, she endured the harrowing, inhumane perils of enslavement alongside her younger sister Lizzie. She and her sister were forcibly taken to a plantation in Sheffield owned by Colonel John Ashley, where they were held in bondage against their will.
Bett was determined to seek liberty. After overhearing a public reading of the Sheffield Declaration—which implemented elements included in the United States Declaration of Independence and the Massachusetts Constitution—Bett and an enslaved man named Brom enlisted the support of attorney Theodore Sedgwick and began to take the necessary steps towards legally fighting for emancipation.
In 1781, Sedgwick filed a court document with the Berkshire Court of Common Pleas that deemed Bett’s enslavement unconstitutional. The case Brom and Bett v. Ashley was taken to the County Court of Common Pleas of Great Barrington that same year. Bet and Brom won the case in which they received their freedom, 30 shillings and had their legal fees covered.
After being legally liberated on August 21, 1781, Bett changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman. She did paid housework for Sedgwick and later became a midwife and nurse. She purchased a home for her and her family two decades after being emancipated. Freeman died in 1829, but her brave impact has reverberated for generations. Her case ultimately set a precedent for other legal “freedom suits,” which eventually prompted the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to forbid slavery within the state.
Politician and civil rights attorney Deval Patrick, Massachusetts’ first Black governor, and his wife Diane played a pivotal role in ensuring this project came to fruition.
“What I love about the story is that this remarkable woman, enslaved, sometimes brutalized, unable to read, listened carefully to the conversation around the table as the men she was serving discussed the concepts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as ‘inalienable rights,’” Patrick shared in a statement, according to the news outlet. “I love that this powerless woman could imagine these powerful ideas as her own and could persuade others to test that question. And I love that the Massachusetts courts had the integrity of purpose to take her question seriously.”
After honoring other women trailblazers in Berkshire County last year, State Rep. William Pignatelli wanted to introduce a statue of Freeman that symbolized her courage. The sculpture will stand at the First Congregational Church. In addition to the bronze 8-foot monument created by Brian Hanlon, a scholarship fund for local high school students has been launched to pay homage to Freeman.
News about Freeman’s statue comes a year after it was announced a monument honoring the life and legacy of abolitionist and activist Harriet Tubman was coming to the city of Newark.
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