7/3/2013 1:41:00 PM
By Hakim Abdul-Ali
Today I want to rap about a very special lady. Her name is Mum Bett or should I say politely, Elizabeth Freeman. She was called also called affectionately Bett and Mumbet.
She was quite a lady in more ways than one. To say that she was courageous would be a slight to her esteem. She was more than that and some more.
I’m going to slow down a little and let you know why I respect this ebony lady of soul who was born around 1742 according to some historians. This valiant lady was and is a heroine among “our-storican” queens, and it’s important to understand where I’m coming from in loving this extraordinary superwoman before you know where I’m going with this article for today.
Everyone who knows me personally knows that I’m a committed researcher, collector, teacher and writer about anything or anyone connected to the African and African-American experiences. It’s a consummate passion that has driven the inner pulses of my ethnic understanding to want to know as much as I can about African people here, there and everywhere.
Because of that educationally insatiable propensity throughout my life, I’ve loved to learn about all African peoples of color and their struggles to attain liberation from the globally oppressive realms of racially enforced servitude and nationalistic bigoted “inhue-man” captivity. This unquenchable thirst for didactic comprehension of self has taken me on a search for such knowledge for more than sixty years, and that yearning continues to this very moment.
That brings me to where I’m at presently in my column entitled “Mum Bett.” I first briefly learned about her about thirty years ago in my book searching haunts through the peaks, hills and valleys of New England when I called the state of New Jersey home and Newark was my place of residency.
You see, being the absorbed and avid bibliophile that I am, and having always been that way, very few weeks found me stationary in New Jersey, if I could help it. Many times, it seemed as though an outer body mental familiarity was telling me to hit the road in order to search for more and more “our-storical” vintage book knowledge about the things that challenged my cultural thinking process.
That incessant calling took me to towns, villages and small cities throughout New England, for example, among other destinations, looking for those hidden prized treasures called rare books. On many instances, my searching for said possible treasures yielded golden dividends beyond my wildest dreams as my burgeoning book collection took on awe-inspiring accumulations with each new addition to my private library.
One book I purchased back then (I forgot the name) mentioned the heroism of Mum Bett. This intrigued me. I found out that she was enslaved in the Sheffield, Massachusetts, home of a man named Colonel John Ashley when she was six months old. Legend tells us that she successfully sued this same Colonel Ashley in 1781 for her freedom.
Sounds like this sister of color was bold, fearless, courageous and, using the parlance of urban Americana, she was a fighter without fear even back then. She had to be, because repressive injustice is and always be labeled as such, no matter what time in any century it occurred or happened.
Mum Bett, was said to have been born in Claverack, New York, and she was what you’d call an authentic antislavery pioneer. To this fact there stands a historical marker in the town of Ashley Falls, Massachusetts, which honors her and her defiant will to be free.
I saw it last week during a visit to the Berkshire Mountains’ environs of New England and it reads thusly:
“On April 25, 1724, Chief Konkapot of the Mahican Indians sold a tract a land, including this village, to settlers for 460 pounds, three barrels of cider and 30 quarts of rum. The village was named in honor of Capt. John Ashley, Col. John Ashley, a leading statesman, and Gen. John Ashley, veteran of the American Revolution. Colonel Ashley and ten townsmen drafted the Sheffield Declaration here in 1773. This spirit of independence inspired a young village slave, Mum Bett, to sue for her freedom in a landmark case helping to abolish slavery in Massachusetts.”
According to the book, “African American Heritage In the Upper Housatonic Valley,” Colonel Ashley’s wife, Hannah,who possessed a violent temper, struck Mum Bett with a blow that was intended for Mum Bett’s younger sister. Having heard of Massachusetts’ new constitution that had been discussed in the Ashley household against slavery, Bett decided to take action.
She sought out a Sheffield, Massachusetts, man named Theodore Sedgwick, a lawyer, who had very intense antislavery convictions. Mum Bett’s awareness and self-determination led her to tell Mr. Sedgwick, “Sir, ‘I heard that paper read yesterday that says, ‘all men are born equal and that every man has a right to freedom.’ I am not a dumb critter; won’t the law give me my freedom?”
It’s to be noted that Mum Bett was not the first slave to seek legal recourse in Massachusetts, but her pursuit of freedom was the first to be successful. After having vacated the hostile Ashley family domicile, lawyer Sedgwick took legal action on her behalf.
In August 1781 the case was heard at the Inferior Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington (Massachusetts). Interestingly, the formal case was brought by “Brom a Negro Man and Bett a Negro Woman.” This was done because women were yet to have standing before the courts, and Brom, an enslaved man in the Ashley household, was listed first in the complaint.
Lawyer Sedgwick enlisted the distinguished Connecticut attorney, Tapping Reeve, to argue that no previous law established the validity of slavery in Massachusetts, and that even if it did, it was cancelled by new state constitution forbidding such action.
The jury found that plaintiffs “are not and were not at the time of the purchase of the original writ the legal Negro servants of him the said John Ashley during their life. Having won her freedom Mum Bett took the name Elizabeth Freeman and went to work for the Sedgwick family, first in Sheffield, and then in Stockbridge, when the family relocated there in 1785.
Mum Bett was claimed as a relative by none other than the renowned and celebrated scholar, Dr. W.E.B. Dubois of Great Barrington. He wrote that she married his maternal great-grandfather, “Jack” Burghardt.
Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman retired from the Sedgwick family in 1808. She died in December 28, 1829, in Stockbridge at the age of 87, and she was buried in the Sedgwick family plot.
This true African-American “shero” was a noble person of color, who’s worthy of further study and “our-storical” acknowledgement. Remember those who came before us and what they did and gave to make us who we are now. I do, and I hope that you do. The future must never forget the Mum Betts of “our” past. For today and always, that’s “As I See It.”