Abolitionist, former slave. Born sometime around 1742, Mum Bett, or Mumbet as she was referred to affectionately, proved to be a driving force in ending the slave trade in the new Commonwealth of Massachusetts when she successfully sued for freedom in 1781, becoming the first African-American woman to win her way out of #slavery.
Like so many thousands of others born into slavery, little is known about Mum Bett’s early history, such as when or where she was born. What is clear is that in 1746 she became the property of wealthy Sheffield, Massachusetts, resident John Ashley and his wife, Hannah. Bett and a younger woman, who may have been Bett’s sister Lizzie, had previously been the property of Hannah’s family. When she married John Ashley, it seems, Mum Bett and Lizzie were given to the couple.
Ashley, a strong supporter of the American Revolution, claimed to have the largest farm in town, and his wealth was built in large measure on the backs of the small group of slaves he owned. Around him, though, the world was changing. As the American colonies staked out their independence, the abolitionist movement began to gain some headwind in Massachusetts. Even as early as 1700, the Puritan judge Samuel Seawall, who was instrumental in prosecuting the Salem Witch Trials, wrote a piece called The Selling of Joseph that called into question the practice of owning other human beings.
In 1773, Boston blacks organized a petition against slavery. It was turned down, but just seven years later the Commonwealth of Massachusetts completed its constitution, the first state in the Union to do so. In it was the guarantee that “all men are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights.”
Ashley, by all historical accounts, had an even temper. His wife, however, did not. As the story goes, Hannah became quite angry one day with Lizzie, and went to attack her with a fiery, hot kitchen shovel. But in an effort to save her sister, Mum Bett stepped in front of Lizzie and weathered the blow herself.
The attack left a permanent scar on Mum Bett’s face. More importantly, though, it propelled her to leave the Ashley home and seek the assistance of Theodore Sedgwick, an abolitionist, attorney, and future U.S. Senator, who lived in the nearby town of Stockbridge.
Betts hadn’t just fled out of fear, though. Through all the talk she’d heard around the Ashley home about the rights of the Colonies, Bett had come to believe she’d been guaranteed some rights of her own. To her ears, the new Massachusetts Constitution extended its protection to all people in the Commonwealth, even slaves.
In Sedgwick, she found the perfect person to represent her. He was looking to mount a legal attack against the practice of slavery, and through Bett and another slave attached to the cause, he’d discovered the perfect test case. On August 21, 1781, Brom and Bett v. Ashley was first argued before the Court of Common Pleas.
It took only a day for the jury to find in the plaintiffs’ favor. Bett and Brom were freed and awarded 30 shillings in damages. Ashley appealed the decision but quickly dropped the case. While he pleaded with Bett to return to his home as a paid servant, she refused, choosing instead to work for Sedgwick’s family.
Another important legal challenge, headed up by African-American leader Prince Hall, involved three men who were abducted and taken as slaves to the West Indies. Their case, along with Bett’s, pushed the slave trade in Massachusetts to its final days. The slave trade was officially ended in the Commonwealth on March 26, 1788, making it the first state in the Union to abolish it.
Meanwhile Bett, who changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman, grew incredibly close to the Sedgwick family, working for them for several years as a domestic servant. She saved enough money to eventually build her own house, where she raised her family. Some 100 years later, her great-grandson W.E. B. Dubois used his own writing to delve deep into the terrible impact racism had on all sectors of American society. Mum Bett lived until her mid 80s, passing away on December 28, 1829. She was buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge.