The end of slavery in Massachusetts might be traced to a single act, on a single day – when a white woman, the mistress of the house, angrily struck out at one of her household slaves with a hot shovel. In her rage, the woman did not see the slave’s sister, a woman known as ‘Mum Bett‘ jump into the path of the assault and absorb the blow. Mum Bett was seriously injured, so much so that she never fully regained the use of her arm. In the confusion immediately following the attack, Mum Bett fled the house and refused to return. The law wasn’t on her side. Until the 1780′s, slavery was quite legal in Massachusetts.
Mum Bett, also known as Elizabeth Freeman, had been a slave all her life. Just six months after she was born in 1742 to enslaved parents in Claverack, New York (some 20 miles south from Albany), she and her young sister were sold to a Sheffield, Massachusetts man named Colonel John Ashley. Mum Bett served the Ashley household for nearly 40 years until the day when Mrs. Ashley struck her with the shovel. During those decades, she had had a daughter, who was called ‘Little Bett’, and had married and lost a husband, who died while fighting in the Revolutionary War.
Colonel Ashley sought the law’s help in returning his slave. The abolitionist movement was already alive in Massachusetts and Mum Bett knew that Theodore Sedgwick, a lawyer from nearby Stockbridge, was sympathetic to the cause. Mum Bett sought out Sedgewick in 1781, and argued that if the new state constitution and Bill of Rights declared all men ‘free and equal’, then, surely, she must be protected under that same law. Sedgewick agreed to take the case and helped Mum Bett, and a fellow slave of the Ashley household named Brom, sue for their freedom.
The case, Brom & Bett v. Ashley, was argued in Berkshire county court. And, to the surprise of many, Mum Bett and Brom won. They became the first slaves to be freed under the new Massachusetts state constitution of 1780, which read:
“All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”
The court even ordered Colonel Ashley to pay the newly-freed slaves thirty shillings and court costs. The ruling sent shock waves through a world that had always known slavery as a legal institution. Just a couple of years later, the Quock Walker case, the first to successfully show that slavery would not be upheld in the Massachusetts state courts under the new state constitution, relied heavily on Brom & Bett v. Ashley as a precedent. Together, the outcome of the two cases eventually led to the beginning of the end of slavery in Massachusetts.
Nothing is recorded of Brom’s life as a free man. But, as for Mum Bett, after the ruling, Col. Ashley begged her to come back to work for him for wages. She refused, and instead worked as a housekeeper for the Sedgewicks for the remainder of her life, some 48 years. An account exists that details her successful effort to protect the Sedgwick household from rebels during Shays’ Rebellion in 1787. In later life, she set up house with her daughter, and developed a local reputation as a skilled midwife and nurse.
In 1829, Mum Bett died an old – and free – woman, surrounded by her many children and grandchildren. She remained in Massachusetts for the rest of her life. Almost forty years after her death, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the town where her historic case was argued. W.E.B. DuBois, who became famous in his own right as a historian, sociologist, and a co-founder of the NAACP, also went on to become the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University. He also claimed to be Mum Bett’s descendant. All of his achievements were greatly facilitated by the courageous act of his great-great-grandmother, whose historic case helped ensure that he would be born a free man.
After her death in 1829, Mum Bett was buried in the old burial ground in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Her epitaph reads:
“She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years. She could neither read nor write yet in her own sphere she had no superior or equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper, and the tenderest friend. Good mother, farewell.”
- Mum Bett – A Celebration of Black History (montyrainey.wordpress.com)