Elizabeth Freeman: First Enslaved African American Freed Under the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780

Elizabeth Freeman (Mumbet)

It’s believed that Elizabeth Freeman, Mumbet, was born between 1742-1744, to enslaved African American parents in Claverack, New York. At 6 months old, she and her sister Lizzie were sold to Colonel John Ashley on a straw covered bed carried by a sleigh.

Mumbet, as she was called, and Lizzie worked in the Ashley House.

One day, after hearing a harsh sound growing louder, she opened the pantry door and saw her sister crouched on the floor with Colonel Ashley’s wife towering above her wielding a heavy iron shovel glowing red with heat from the fireplace. Mumbet lunged forward to ward off the blow and felt the metal edge hit her arm before the shovel fell on the hearthstone.

She knew that the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. Despite, she was not free nor equal. She decided that if all people were born free and equal, then the laws must apply to her, too.

She went to meet with Theodore Sedgwick, a lawyer, with Little Bet in her arms. Sedgewick agreed to take her case, which was joined by another of Ashley's slaves, a man called Brom (James Baumfree).          

Brom & Bett v. Ashley was argued before a county court in August 1871. Ruled in their favor, Mumbet and Brom became the first enslaved African Americans to be freed under the Massachusetts constitution of 1780.

Colonel Ashley was ordered to pay the sum of “thirty shillings lawful silver money damages, and the cost of this suit taxed at six pounds fourteen shillings and pour pence like money.”

Mumbet, died December 28, 1829, the Sedgwick family thought she was 85 years old. Like many other slaves, she never learned to read or write.

Her will reveals a daughter named Elizabeth, known as Little Bet, a granddaughter named Marianne Dean, great-grandchildren Mary Elizabeth Dean, Wealthy Ann Dean, Lydia Maria Ann Van Schaack, and Amos Josiah Van Schaack.

Mumbet married young, at which point she changed her name Elizabeth Freeman, but everyone called her Bet. Her husband died in the revolutionary war soon after and she remained a widow.

She was buried in the in Sedgwick cemetery lot in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

“Little that is good or hoped for comes easily.”

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