|The only known image of Elzabeth Freeman from life, circa 1811..
Elizabeth Freeman slipped away to a quiet death in the modest Stockbridge, Massachusetts that she owned and shared with her daughter Betsy, who was herself passed sixty years of age, on December 28, 1829. She was believed to be 87 years old.
Freeman was the name she adopted upon her “second birth” after she won her freedom from slavery in a historic court case back in 1781. Before that she was known only at Bett, or as she aged and grayed, as Mum Bett by the white children she cared for.
She was born about 1742 as a slave in the household of a wealthy Dutch family of Pieter Hogeboom in Claverack, New York and named simply Bett, whether by her unknown mother or by the master. Virtually nothing is known about her early life except that it was a life of toil.
She was probably associated from an early age to Hogeboom’s daughter Hannah. When Hannah married young lawyer John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts Bett was either a wedding present or part of her dowry. She was still in her early teens at the time.
Ashley became a leading local Patriot in the days before the Revolutionary War and his home was the frequent meeting place to plan action. The servant Bett although illiterate, apparently absorbed all of the high flown talk about the Rights of Man and freedom that resounded before the hearth. The house, in fact, was where the Sheffield Resolves were drawn up in January of 1773 which are considered one of the first declarations of defiance to Crown authority citing the Rights of Man and whose rhetoric was later echoed by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.
Bett tended her short tempered mistress and nursed her children. Along the way she married another slave whose name has been lost to history. She gave birth to her only daughter Betsy sometime during the Revolution. Her husband served in either the Militia or Continental Army. He may have been “lent” by his master to the cause, or have been allowed to enlist, perhaps even with the promise of freedom which some Patriot masters gave to their servants. But Bett’s husband never returned from the war, his fate entirely unknown. Perhaps he died of wounds or disease, perhaps he was captured, or perhaps he ran away.
Despite their long association and the affection her children had for the family servant, Hannah was sharp tempered and harsh. In 1780 her mistress went too far. She tried to attack little Betsy with a shovel that had been heated in the hearth. Bett threw herself over her child and fended off the blow with her bare arm, which was severely injured. The defiant slave refused to even bandage the ugly wound to shame her mistress. Whenever visitors to the home asked about it she would tell them simply, “ask missis!”
Not long after, Bett heard the words of the new Massachusetts constitution read in the house:
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.
—Massachusetts Constitution, Article I
Bett heard those words and had an idea. She sought the aid of Theodore Sedgwick, a lawyer and Patriot who was an associate of her master but who she knew was opposed to slavery. As Sedgwick’s daughter Catherine later told it in a memoir, Bett asked, “I heard that paper read yesterday, that says, all men are created equal, and that every man has a right to freedom. I'm not a dumb critter; won't the law give me my freedom?”
Sedgwick agreed it should. He enlisted the help of Tapping Reeve of Connecticut, the proprietor of America’s first law school. Together they filed suit in the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington on behalf of Bett and another Ashley family slave. The case of Brom and Bett vs. Ashley was heard in August 1781. The jury agreed with the simple argument that the words “All men are born free and equal” essentially abolished Slavery in the Commonwealth. Bett and her daughter were free, the first women to be freed by a court in America.
Bett later told Catherine Sedgewick, “Any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it—just to stand one minute on God's earth a free woman—I would.”
Whatever his wife might have thought Ashley tried to hire Bett to work for the family for wages. Bett would have none of it.
She changed her name legally to Elizabeth Freeman and went to work in Theodore Sedgwick’s home where she was happy, respected, and well treated. She was called affectionately Mum Bett by the Sedgwick children and was particularly close to Catherine who would tell her story to the world.
Freeman also was in great demand as a skilled mid-wife and as a practitioner of herbal medicine. When the Sedgewick children were grown, she had enough money to buy her own home where she lived out many more years with her daughter and eventually her daughter’s family.
W.E.B. Dubois claimed connection to Freeman through her daughter’s likely second marriage to his maternal great-grandfather, “Jack” Burghardt.