Tag: Elizabeth Freeman

Massachusetts Historical Figure Mum Bett Who Sued for Freedom Honored at Boston State House Today

Black-History-Mum-Bett-for-webOne of Massachusetts’ most important historical figures, former slave Elizabeth Freeman, is being honored at the State House in Boston today.  Freeman, formerly known as Mum Bett, was one of the first black slaves in Massachusetts to file a “freedom suit” and win in court under the 1780 state constitution.

“In the Berkshires, Mum Bett is pretty well-known,” said state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli. “Beyond our county, that’s not the case. I think Black History Month gives us a great opportunity for people outside the Berkshires to hear this amazing story.”

Massachusetts Chief Justice Roderick Ireland will give the keynote speech.  In addition, actress Tammy Denease will present a 15-minute reenactment of the story of Mum Bett.

Denease is a Connecticut-based actress who specializes in reenacting the stories of prominent black women from history. In addition to Mum Bett, her characters include Elizabeth Keckly, another former slave who won her freedom, and Bessie Coleman, the world’s first African-American aviatrix.

Bett was born a slave and was owned by the Col. John Ashley family of Sheffield. Ashley was, by all accounts, even-tempered. His wife, Hannah, however, was not.  Hannah Ashley at one point struck Bett with a red-hot coal shovel, scarring her face. This moved Bett to travel to nearby Stockbridge, where she sought the assistance of Stockbridge attorney Theodore Sedgwick.  Through Sedgwick, Mum Bett and another slave, Brom, won their freedom in 1781, a legal victory that essentially led to the end of the slave trade in Massachusetts in 1789.

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Women’s History Month: Four Unsung Black Women You Should Know

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As with Black History Month, the focus on already well-known figures has been an ongoing criticism of Woman’s History Month. When it comes to black women, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells and Rosa Parks are on repeat. What makes these much-needed theme months thrive, however, is the spirit of discovery. It’s doubtful that the names Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman, Callie House, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin or Johnnie Tillmon even draw a glint of recognition but they should. In their own ways, each of these women made important contributions to the ongoing struggle for freedom and justice.

Even as a slave, Elizabeth Freeman, known as Mum Bett most of her life, had the audacity to sue for her freedom. Born into slavery in Claverack, New York around 1742, Freeman, at a reported six months old, was sold, along with her sister, to John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, a judge in the Massachusetts Court of Common Pleas. Enslaved to Ashley until she was almost 40, Freeman was spurred to action when the mistress of the house Hannah Ashley tried to hit her sister with a heated kitchen shovel. Freeman intervened and was hit instead, leaving the house, vowing to never come back.

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