(WOMENSENEWS)–American slavery was not undone solely by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution as an emancipative conclusion to the Civil War.
As the story of one woman’s fight for freedom in early New England demonstrates, the abolitionist movement reaches back nearly as far as the earliest settlements, and in the beginning, its victories were incremental.
1780 Massachusetts Constitution
Article I. 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.
One such victory belonged to Elizabeth Freeman, widely and better known in local history by her affectionate family nickname Mum Bett, or Mumbet.
She lived in the western part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and won her freedom during the Revolutionary War by taking a case to court and demanding it.
A new book based on primary sources that probes her life further–how she earned her living and how she spent her old age and where her family members wound up–is being promised by historians David Levinson and Emilie Piper. However, existing journal articles sketch some outlines of her extraordinary court case.
Folklore identifies Freeman as the first African American woman to be freed from bondage.
Some historians have cast doubt on this claim, identifying earlier legal cases in the northern colonies where black women and men were awarded their freedom in courts.
But the Massachusetts Historical Society credits her case for setting a precedent that helped lead to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts during the 1780s.
Worked as Family Servant
Freeman worked for many years as the enslaved servant of John Ashley, a prominent citizen of Sheffield, Mass.
Freeman and her younger sister were acquired by Ashley through his marriage to Annetje Hogeboom, the daughter of a Dutch family from New York. Annetje may have been brutal. One day, as local lore has it, she took up a heated shovel to beat the younger sister but Mum Bett intervened and took the blow instead. Outraged, Mum Bett forever quit the house and Ashley appealed to the court to force her return.
One popular version of this story is that Freeman overheard talk of how liberty was guaranteed to all in Massachusetts’ new constitution of 1780 and was inspired to sue for her freedom. Many historians believe it is more likely that abolitionist lawyers selected her–and an enslaved man named Brom, about whom little is known–to carry a case and test those new constitutional principles.
Ashley Dropped His Appeal
In any event, the court ruled against Ashley and both Freeman and Brom won their freedom. At first, Ashley appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. But then he dropped his case, and the historic record so far provides no clear explanation of his motive.
At least one school of thought speculates that the higher court would have been reluctant to maintain Freeman’s victory on constitutional grounds since freedom was generally granted to enslaved people in cases that hinged on contractual obligations rather than the principle that freedom is a birthright.
But in between the lower court’s ruling and Ashley’s decision to drop the appeal another, more famous case, Caldwell v. Jennings, part of a series of cases known collectively as the Quock Walker litigation, was settled in Massachusetts on a technicality. It produced the decision that slavery was unconstitutional.
That ruling may have caused Ashley to assume the legal question was settled in Freeman’s favor.
Passionate Words Composed
Brom and Freeman’s attorneys were the active abolitionist Theodore Sedgwick and the legal educator Tapping Reeve. In her later years Freeman worked as a servant for the Sedgwick family, which included an aspiring novelist, Catherine Sedgwick. She fictionalized Mum Bett’s story and attributed to her passionate words about her captivity:
"Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it–just to stand one minute on god’ airth a free woman–I would."
Interest in Freeman’s life and court victory is on the upswing in western Massachusetts and among those investigating the abolitionist movement.
But with her court victory largely overlooked by time, Freeman’s ancestral connection to one of the greatest men of letters may be her story’s strongest preservative. She was long dead, and it was over a century later that her great-grandson secured his own place in history by writing eloquently about American racism and piercing nearly every important subject of the day: His name was W. E. B. Dubois.
Jennifer Thurston is managing editor of Women’s eNews.