Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman: Many Special Names for a Woman of Courage
An Essay by Denise Kaminsky
Elizabeth Freeman is "Universally regarded as an exemplary model of courage, wit and charity" (ANB 439). She is acclaimed and simply recognized as "Mammy Bet," "Mumbet," "Mum-Bett," and "Betty," all derived from her first name, Elizabeth. Since she lacked a surname for most of her life, she sued for freedom under the name "Bett" and adopted the name Elizabeth Freeman after winning her lawsuit in 1781 (ANB 439).
Elizabeth Freeman was born a slave to enslaved African parents in Claverack, New York ("Africans in America"). According to American National Biography, she was born 1742, but the proposed dates for her birth range from 1732 to 1744, or as late as 1751. These variances in Freeman's birth dates "are derived from an estimate carved on her tombstone suggesting that she was about eighty-five when she died" and that she was a slave "for nearly thirty years." Unfortunately, Elizabeth Freeman herself had no recollection of her actual birth date so historians have no recourse but to estimate.
The consensus of Freeman's admirer's upon learning of her life is that "her dignity and intelligence are a matter of record" (ANB). An official website for Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman, mumbet.com, proudly exclaims that "Mumbet was one of the first slaves to be set free in Massachusetts and in the newly formed United States of America and that she is with out (sic) a doubt the first black woman to be set free due in large part to her own determination and character." Though there are some aspects of Freeman's life that are shrouded in mystery, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, in "Slavery in New England," writes a heartfelt tribute to Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman. Edward Foster quotes Catharine Sedgwick and reveals "that the people who surround us in our childhood, whose atmosphere infolds us, as it were, have more to do with the formation of our characters than all our didactic and perceptive education" (Foster 26). The Sedgwick family would eventually become Elizabeth Freeman's family, not just as a paid servant, but as an honorary member.
There is an opening statement on mumbet.com that depicts how obscure and difficult it was finding information about Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman:
Acknowledged by so few Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman is not mentioned in the publication Notable American Women (1971), a three volume biographical dictionary which is the first full-scale scholarly work of its kind. Mumbet is not mentioned in Merriam Webster Biographical Dictionary. She is not mentioned in the National Women's Hall of Fame. She is known in Berkshire County Massachusetts and her story is documented and researched by scholars and is the subject of a few books.
Not much is known either, about Elizabeth Freeman's immediate family
members. The only trace of information concerning Freeman's parents is
from her bequest at the time of her death. Special gifts of a black
silk gown from her father and another gown from her mother were
treasured items that Freeman discusses in her Last Will and Testament.
Sedgwick's son reports that she married at an early age and her husband
died in the Continental service while fighting in the Revolutionary War
(ANB 439). According to "Africans in America," Elizabeth also had a
daughter known as "Little Bett." American National Biography cites that
most of what we know of Elizabeth Freeman's life comes from two
generations of the Sedgwick family. Her will, signed with a cross on 18
October 1829, indicates that she indeed had a daughter, and in
addition, grandchildren and great-grandchildren (439).
Elizabeth Freeman was the slave originally, of Pieter Hogeboom of New York. When Hogeboom died in 1758, Freeman and her younger sister Lizzy were transferred, presumably by purchase, to the Sheffield, Massachusetts estate of John Ashley, who had married Hogeboom's youngest daughter, Hannah Ashley in 1735 (ANB 439).
Colonel John Ashley was a cautious revolutionary, judge of the court of common pleas, held other state and local positions, and in 1773 Chaired the committee that drew up the Sheffield Declaration. This declaration resolved that "Mankind in a State of Nature are equal, free, and independent of each other, and have a right to the undisturbed Enjoyment of their lives, their Liberty and Property." A young lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick, father of Catharine Maria Sedgwick, was presumably present at these committee meetings as a clerk (ANB 439).
At the time, there were discussions amongst the people about the new Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 and the proposed Bill of Rights. Elizabeth Freeman approached Theodore Sedgwick after hearing the Declaration of Independence read at the village meetinghouse in Sheffield. Catharine Sedgwick shares that Freeman said, "I heard that paper read yesterday that says, "all men are born equal, and that every man has a right to freedom." Another account claims that Freeman overheard talk about the Massachusetts state constitutional provision while waiting on tables (Black Women in America 499). Mumbet.com ascertains that since Colonel Ashley was a prominent lawyer and an influential Southern Berkshire resident, it was only natural that his home would be the scene of many discussions about the document (Massachusetts Constitution). "As she waited on the Ashley family, Mumbet overheard many of the conversations about freedom and liberty." American National Biography suggests that "such overheard comments were apparently the source of Freeman's resolve to sue for her freedom, although she did not do so until 1781, a year after Massachusetts approved its new constitution" (439).
There is, of course, much discussion about Elizabeth Freeman's younger sister, Lizzy (Lizzie), "a sickly timid creature, over whom she watched as the lioness does over her cubs" (Sedgwick's "Slavery in New England") and an event that may have spurred Mumbet into action with the lawsuit. Catharine Maria Sedgwick, in "Slavery in New England" relates the tale:
On one occasion, when Madame A---was making the patrol of her kitchen, she discovered a wheaten cake, made by Lizzy the sister, for herself. Enraged at the "thief," as she branded her, she seized a large iron shovel [red?] hot from clearing the oven, and raised it over the terrified girl. Bet interposed her brawny arm, and took the blow. It was quite across the arm to the bone, "but," she would say afterwards in concluding the story of the frightful scar she carried to her grave, "Madam never again laid her hand on Lizzy. I had a bad arm all winter, but Madam had the worst of it. I never covered the wound, and when people said to me, before Madam---, 'Why Betty! What ails your arm?' I only answered 'ask Madam.'"
Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman, resentful of the injustice, left the home of Colonel John Ashley (mumbet.com).
In "Africans in America," they cite that "when Colonel Ashley appealed to the law for her return, she called on Theodore Sedgwick." Intrigued by the "palpable illogic of slavery at a time when Massachusetts was engaged in a fight for freedom from imperial regulation and control," Sedgwick accepted the case (mumbet.com). Despite her enslavement, Freeman, an illiterate black woman, was able to secure legal counsel and provide him with a legal theory for her case. Sedgwick filed suit on Freeman's behalf against Colonel Ashley and his son who Elizabeth claimed were illegally detaining her and a black male co petitioner named Brom (Brom and Bett v. Ashley). The writ declared that the enslavement of Freeman and Brom violated a provision of the newly enacted 1780 state constitution that declared that all men are "born free and equal" (Black Women in America 499).
In the Great Barrington Court of Common Pleas on August 21, 1781 in Brom and Bett v. F. Ashley Esquire, the jury found for them and fined Ashley thirty shillings for damages and court costs. Ashley's appeal was dropped after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in another case that slavery was unconstitutional under the state constitution ANB 439).
In the book, Black Women in America, they contend that "historians overlook or marginalize Freeman's contribution, citing instead a case involving a black man, Quock Walker, decided after Freeman's suit." They explore several reasons "why Freeman is seldom credited with striking a blow against slavery in Massachusetts." One reason that the book offers is that historian Arthur Zilversmit relied on Catherine Sedgwick as the primary source of his research, but discounted Sedgwick's claim that Freeman could comprehend a legal argument. Zilversmit "ignores the fact that while blacks in slavery were denied, often by law, access to literacy, intelligence does not hinge on literacy, skin color, or sex" (Black Women in America 499). Ironically, in the book Catharine Maria Sedgwick, she is no stranger to negative criticism either "observing that her American propensity to gossip deprives her of the 'delicacy' expected of a female moralist" and in "policing her variations from their standards of feminine conversation or cultivated English: They reprimand vulgar slang or fashionable French in the mouth of a lady and 'negro jargon' in that of a black character" (Damon-Bach 203). Elizabeth Freeman's contribution is significant because, unlike other freedom suits based on individual circumstances or technicalities designed to secure freedom only for the petitioner, the legal theory set forth in her suit had the potential to free not just the petitioners, but all enslaved blacks in Massachusetts (Black Women in America 500).
Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman, as a free woman, went to work for the Sedgwick family, who moved from Sheffield to Stockbridge in 1785 (ANB 439). Catharine Sedgwick recounts this in her 1853 article "Slavery in New England." "Mum-Bett immediately transferred herself to the service of her champion, if service that could be called, which was quite as much rule as service. She was in truth a sort of nurse 'gouvernante' in his house: an anomalous office in our land." She became a valuable part of the family and humbly took on the roles of caretaker and nurse.
Freeman's nursing skill was exemplified in her care for the ten children of Thomas Sedgwick and his wife, Pamela Dwight, who suffered from severe depression and possibly insanity before her death in 1807 (ANB 439). Catharine Sedgwick wrote of her beloved Mumbet:
One should of known this remarkable woman, the native majesty of her deportment: Mumbet was the only person who could tranquilize my mother when her mind was disordered-the only one of her friends whom she liked to have about her-and why? She treated her with the same respect she did when she was sane. As far as possible, she obeyed her commands and humored her caprices; in short, her superior instincts hit upon the mode of treatment that science has since adopted (mumbet.com).
Theodore Sedgwick was usually away from home for more than half of each year, and almost always for the long, cold Stockbridge winter. Pamela's diminished mental state had resulted in several lengthy, but apparently unsuccessful hospitalizations. With both parents thus unavailable, the "household was held together primarily by Elizabeth Freeman, to whom Catharine referred in more than one instance as mother" (Damon-Bach and Clements xxii-iii). Henry Dwight Sedgwick, Catharine's brother, claims that "his personal relationship with Freeman made it impossible for him to believe in African inferiority" and exclaims, "Having known this woman as familiarly as I knew either of my parents, I cannot believe in the moral or physical inferiority of the race to which she belonged" (Damon-Bach 124).
During her employment with the Sedgwick family, Mumbet again exemplifies her strength and courage in the face of life altering obstacles. "Slavery in New England" gives a glimpse into Mum-Bett's war-torn world:
Soon after the close of the war, there was some resistance to the administration of the newly organised (sic) State Government: The Jack Cades banded together; dishonest men misled honest ones; the government was embarrassed; the courts were interrupted; and disorder prevailed throughout the western counties. A man named Shay was the leader; the rising has been dignified as Shay's war. (Sedgwick)
Mumbet's personal courage, demonstrated by her court case, was further illustrated by her behavior during Shay's Rebellion in 1786. Theodore Sedgwick was away from home when men invaded the house. Freeman hid the family silver among her own possessions and threatened the invaders with a large kitchen shovel. When they started to search her possessions, she shamed them into leaving (ANB 439). Mercifully, no one was hurt, and Mumbet successfully protected the family home, and she proudly did so without any violence.
The time came when Elizabeth was awarded the opportunity to retire, free at last to enjoy the life she fought so hard to make better. She was able to purchase a house in Stockbridge, using her own personal savings, and deservedly had a place to call home. She also became a much sought-after nurse and midwife ("Africans in America"). Saddened by many, on the 28th day of December, 1829, Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman died, surrounded by her children and grandchildren in the free state of Massachusetts that she had helped to create. One of her great-grandchildren was W.E.B. DuBois, born almost forty years later in Great Barrington, the very town where her historic case was argued ("Africans in America").
Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman was buried in the Sedgwick family plot in the Stockbridge Cemetery, the only African American and the only non-Sedgwick interred there (ANB 439). The Sedgwick family burial place is called "The Sedgwick Pie." Theodore Sedgwick's grave is on the left and Pamela Sedgwick's is on the right, and the rest of the Sedgwick family is in circles around the center, with Mumbet included in the first circle (Mumbet.com).
Elizabeth Freeman gave future generations the gift of freedom, confidence, and strength. I think it would have been perfect if she'd have adopted the name of Elizabeth Freewoman. I must reveal, as did so many others before me, that I am humbled upon hearing Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman's story. It emphatically wasn't just a story; It was a life, a battle, a win. Catharine Maria Sedgwick expressed the same sentiment way before me, "We have marked a few striking points along the course of her life, but its whole course was like a noble river, that makes rich and glad the dwellers on its borders" ("Slavery in New England").
Freeman's success, along with numerous others in the fight for equality and respect, is a testimony in our American history. Elizabeth Freeman used the spoken word, stood behind them with sheer determination, while always maintaining human kindness and integrity. She exemplifies the true meaning of courage in the face of extreme adversity. As Charles Sedgwick wrote on her epitaph, so will I follow. "Good Mother, farewell."
"Africans in America." People & Events: Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bet) Apr. 2006. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2p39.html.
Brom and Bett versus Ashley. Court Files, Suffolk 1192, no. 159966 (May
1779-1 Oct. 1783); and Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, 1781-1782.
Damon-Bach, Lucinda L. and Victoria Clements. ed. Catharine Maria Sedgwick: Critical Perspectives. Boston: Northeastern UP, 2003. (xxii-203).
"Elizabeth Mumbet Freeman." 5 Apr. 2006 http://mumbet.com.
Foster, Edward Halsey. Catharine Maria Sedgwick. New York: Twayne, 1974. (26).
Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes. ed. American National Biography. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. (439-40).
Hine, Darlene Clark. ed . Black Women in America. 2nd ed. Vol.1. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. (499-00).
Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. "Slavery in New England." Bentley's Miscellany. 34 (Oct. 1853). 24 Feb. 2006.