hidden figures: mum bett, first black slave to file and win a freedom suit in massachusetts

February 6, 2017

Elizabeth Freeman, more frequently referred to as Mum Bett, was likely born in 1742, to enslaved African parents in Claverack, New York. She and her sister were purchased by John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, whom she served until she was nearly forty. After her mistress assaulted her, she left the house and refused to go back to slavery. When John Ashley appealed to the law for her return, she called on Theodore Sedgewick, a lawyer from Stockbridge who had anti-slavery sentiments, and asked for his help to sue for her freedom. Apparently, Mum Bett had listened carefully while the wealthy men she served talked about the Bill of Rights and the new state constitution, and she decided that if all people were born free and equal, then the laws must apply to her, too. Sedgewick agreed to take the case, which was joined by another of Ashley’s slaves, a man called Brom. Brom & Bett v. Ashley was argued before a county court. The jury ruled in favor of Bett and Brom, making them the first enslaved African Americans to be freed under the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, and ordered Ashley to pay them thirty shillings and costs. This municipal case set a precedent that was affirmed by the state courts in the Quock Walker case and ultimately led to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts. Her tombstone reads: “She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years. She could neither read nor write yet in her own sphere she had no superior or equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper, and the tenderest friend. Good mother, farewell.” Black women, trailblazing and putting the team on their back, all day, everyday, from slavery and beyond. To read more about Mum Bett, visit our source PBS!

By T. McLendon, AFROPUNK Contributor