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Elizabeth Freeman

An African American Hero

Although I have many African American heroes, this Black History Month I choose to focus on an amazing woman named Elizabeth Freeman. Elizabeth’s Freeman’s story is one of courage, inspiration, determination, encouragement and heroism. This woman believed in herself and was able to beat the odds and win.  She was one of the brave African American’s instrumental in changing the course of slavery in America. Elizabeth Freemen was born in the mid 1700’s and was then known as Mum Bet. She lived in Claverack, Columbia County, New York where she and her sister were slaves and grew up on the Pieter Hogeboom plantation.

When Peter Hogeboom’s daughter married a very rich and prominent judge named Colonel Ashely, he gave Mum Bet and her sister Lizzy to the young couple as a wedding gift. Mum Bet was a very young girl at the time. The Ashley’s lived in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Colonel Ashley was a judge in the Massachusetts court system and history notes that Mrs. Ashely was known for her cruelty to the slaves. It was known that Mum Bet bore the scare of Mrs. Ashley's harsh treatment. One day Mrs. Ashley went to strike Mum Bet’s sister with a heated kitchen shovel when Mum Bet shielded her sister with her arm and received the blow which resulted in a deep tissue wound. The wound did not heal well and Mum Bett left it uncovered most of the time to show the cruel treatment she received during enslavement. (Some accounts say it was her daughter who she was shielding).

Moving forward, in 1773 Judge Colonel Ashley was moderator for the Sheffield community members that wrote the Sheffield Declaration.  The declaration stated 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.” This is also stated in the United States Declaration of Independence of 1776 and in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 - and weren't the slaves protected under these declarations. Mum Bett  helped to change that.

A short time after the Revolutionary war, approximately less than a year after the Massachusetts State Constitution was birthed, Mum Bet heard Colonel Ashely reading it out loud in their home. He would read this and other documents at events held at his home which was the customary for the time.  These legal documents were also read out loud at the public square which Mum Bet always listened very carefully to. She was always intrigued when she heard the clause from the Constitution which states “all men are created equal.” Mom Bet was illiterate, could not read or write but she was very smart and witty.

Mum Bet made the decision to fight for her freedom and consulted a young lawyer by the name of Theodore Sedgwick who was also an abolitionist. Sedwick agreed to take on her case and to combine it with another enslaved person, an African American man by the name of Brom who was also fighting for his freedom. Sedgwick realized that this case could be a “test” to see if slavery was legal under the new state’s constitution. Tapping Reeve, a legal educator interested in this test case decided to help with the suit. The attorneys first filed a “writ of replevin” which is a legal action that orders to return property that is held illegitimately.  When Colonel Ashley failed to comply and refused to release Mum Bet and Broom, the case then went to trial.

During the trial of Broom and Bett vs Ashley, the argument was made that slavery was not legal under the new Massachusetts constitution. The jury agreed with the attorneys that Bett and Broom were not the property of Ashley and were set free. When Mom Bett gained her freedom, she legally changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman. Elizabeth later worked for the Sedgwick’s as a paid domestic worker, and she also became a midwife, healer and nurse who eventually bought her own home for her and her children.

This year I gave a donation to the Elizabeth Freeman Center in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. It is a center that offers hope, help, and healing to all experiencing or affected by domestic and sexual violence through free, accessible, and confidential services in Berkshire County.  They work to end the cycle of violence through community mobilization, advocacy, and education. Promoting social justice and working to end all forms of oppression are essential to their work.

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