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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 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 on a sleigh.

Mumbet and Lizzie worked in the Ashley House, a mansion built in 1775 on the banks of the river, near Ashley Falls performing tasks such as cooking meals, laundry, baking, ironing, scrubbing, polishing, sweeping, dusting, dishwashing, making the beds, and tending to Mrs. Ashley’s herb garden.

The community, Sheffield, Massachusetts respected freedom. Political leaders drew up the Sheffield Declaration of Independence the winter of 1772-1773 in the Ashley House. It would be adopted at a town meeting on January 12, 1773 and is called America’s first “Declaration of Independence.”

One day, after hearing a harsh sound going on and on, louder, more uncontrolled, she opened the pantry door and saw her sister crouched near the kitchen table on the floor with Colonel Ashley’s wife towering above her. In her hand, 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 the Constitute, 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 the case, which was joined by another of Ashley's slaves, a man called Brom who cared for the yard and did the heavy work around the house.          

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 fix pounds fourteen shillings and pour pence like Money.”

Elizabeth Freeman, 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 became Elizabeth Freeman, but everyone called her Bet. Her husband died in the revolutionary war soon after—won in 1786, making the US independent from England—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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