One 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.