I didn’t know about this great hero until I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture today. Elizabeth Freeman aka “Mum Bet” (1742-1829) was one of the first slaves to file a suit for her freedom and win. She did so in Massachusetts along with another slave and that fateful decision would lead to the abolition of slavery in the state altogether.
Born into slavery in Claverack, New York, various accounts make an array of claims as to when Ms. Freeman was sold to the man who would become her master until she was about 40 years old. Some accounts say she was as young as six months old while others claim she was well into her teenage years. Nevertheless, she was sold along with her sister and went on to give birth to a daughter.
Accounts also vary as to the altercation that would lead to her refusal to be anyone’s slave ever again. Some say that she had been protecting her sister, others say that she had been protecting her daughter, still others say that she been protecting a younger servant from being struck with a heated kitchen shovel by the mistress. Either way, the episode resulted in Ms. Freeman sustaining a deep wound in her arm–an arm she refused to cover and often showed as evidence of the harsh treatment and reality of slavery.
“Any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told that I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it just to stand one minute on God’s earth a free woman.” -Elizabeth Freeman
One day, Ms. Freeman overheard a conversation between wealthy white men discussing the newly ratified Massachusetts constitution. Specifically, she heard the following section:
All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.
With this new knowledge, she sought out and secured the services of an anti-slavery attorney by the name Theodore Sedgewick. Sedgewick took her case and joining with another slave by the name of Brom, Ms. Freeman became one of the plaintiffs in Brom and Bett vs. Ashley. Based on the state Constitution, Ms. Freeman was set free. She later worked as a paid employee of Sedgewick and his wife. She was also a well sought-after nurse and midwife and is said to be W.E.B. Dubois’ great-great-grandmother.