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Elizabeth Freeman, the First Slave in Massachusetts to Sue Her Master for Her Freedom in 1781

She was popular as Mum Bett until 1781 when she gained her freedom from her master and went ahead to change her name to Elizabeth Freeman.

As an uneducated lady,  Elizabeth Freeman left no written documents about her life. Her significant role in history has been pieced together from reliable sources that have given an accurate account of her life as well as early forms of written history found in the form of stories about her.

according to historian and researchers, Elizabeth is believed to have been born in 1742 to enslaved parents in the farm of Dutchman Pieter Hogeboom in Claverack. At just 6 months, Elizabeth and her sister were purchased by John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts serving him for close to 40 years. At the time, Elizabeth became known as Mum Bett and her husband is said to have died in the Revolutionary War. John Ashley was a wealthy lawyer, businessman and landowner at the time, his wife was Hannah Ashley.

Elizabeth is known to have been very positive in spirit often saying that she will not die a slave but rather walk the streets of Massachusetts free.

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One day, Elizabeth protected her sister from Hannah Ashley’s attempt to hit her with a heated kitchen shovel out of anger. The incidence resulted in Elizabeth taking the blow for her sister and being left with a deep wound in her hand. This angered Elizabeth so much that she went to the house and refused to return. The incident also heightened her need to gain freedom, and she turned to a lawyer from Stockbridge, Theodore Sedgewick, with her anti-slavery sentiments. Her call on the lawyer was to help her sue her owners for her freedom.

At the same time, Colonel Ashley had appealed to the lawyer to get Elizabeth to return. Sedgewick agreed to help Elizabeth together with another of Ashley’s slaves. Elizabeth had told Sedgewick that she had heard her master and his wealthy friends discuss the Bill of Rights and the new state constitution and knew that the law definitely applied to her if it said all people were born free and equal.

Sedgewick prepared the case for court and successfully got a hearing for the case which is now known as Brom & Bett v. Ashley. Brom and Bett won the case and became the first enslaved African -Americans to be freed under the Massachusettes constitution of 1780.

Their former owner, John Ashely, was then asked to pay them an amount of thirty shillings. Soon after her freedom, she changed her name from Mum Bett to Elizabeth Freeman. The case later led to the abolition of slavery in the whole of Massachusetts.

Elizabeth Freeman and her daughter moved in with the Sedgewicks and she worked as a housekeeper for many years.  She later became a nurse and midwife and died in 1829. W.E B Dubois is one of her great-grandchildren.

Today, the tombstone of Elizabeth Freeman can be found in the old burial ground of Stockbridge.

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