On Aug. 22, 1781, a jury in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, found in favor of “Mum Bett,” a Black woman who had been a slave in the home of Col. John Ashley for at least 30 years.
Listening to her master’s friends discuss the newly ratified Massachusetts Constitution, Mum Bett concluded that if all people were born free and equal, so was she.
Mum Bett, whose real name is Elizabeth Freeman, found a young lawyer to represent her, and he persuaded a Berkshire County jury to declare her free.
Two years later, in a case involving Quok Walker, a slave in Worcester County, the chief justice of the state’s highest court declared that slavery “is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution.”
Massachusetts had been the first colony to legalize slavery, and, thanks to Freeman, the legal system helped to end the institution in the state.
Born into slavery in Claverack, New York in 1742, Freeman lived during the 1770s in the household of Ashley, a prominent citizen who at the time also served as a judge of the Berkshire Court of Common Pleas.
Ashley purchased Freeman from a man called Mr. Hogeboom when she was 6 months old, according to BlackPast.org. Upon suffering from physical abuse by Ashley’s wife, Freeman escaped her home and refused to return.
She found a sympathetic ear with attorney Theodore Sedgwick, father of writer Catherine Sedgwick. Once free, Freeman stayed with the Sedgwick family as a servant in gratitude.
In a later case, her attorney used the example of Freeman when he said in defense of the abolition of slavery, “If there could be a practical refutation of the imagined superiority of our race to hers, the life and character of this woman would afford that refutation.”
Freeman is widely acknowledged by many historians as the first woman and the first African American to file and win a lawsuit in the court of law in Massachusetts.
She formed the judicial foundation for the ruling in favor of the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the United States.
Freeman died Dec. 28, 1829, at 85.
Her tombstone can still be seen in the old burial ground of the Stockbridge Cemetery in Massachusetts. It 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.”