Today: Mum Bett, whose lawsuit led to an end to slavery in Massachusetts.
Mum Bett was born a slave in 1742 in Claverack, New York on the farm of Pieter Hogeboom, her owner. When Hogeboom’s daughter Hannah married John Ashley, Mum Bett and her sister were given as wedding gifts to Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, a distance then so great they might never again see their family.
The two girls were slaves to Ashley and his family until 1781 when Mum Bett was nearly 40 years of age. By that time, she and her husband, to the extent a slave marriage had any legal standing, had a daughter, “Little Bett,” but Mum Bett’s husband was killed in the American Revolutionary War.
John Ashley was a rich and successful Yale educated lawyer, landowner and a powerful leader in his community. One day, his wife Hannah got angry at Mum Bett’s sister, grabbed a hot kitchen shovel and tried to slam it into her. Mum Bett jumped in between them and absorbed the full fury of the blow on her arm. It was the last straw of being a slave as an irate Mum Bett grabbed her few belongings and dared to flee her master’s home. Ashley would have none of it and appealed to the magistrate to have her, as his property, returned to him.
Although never taught to read and write for educating slaves could lead to their revolt, Mum Bett was an intelligent woman and a well-regarded housekeeper, nurse and midwife. She was also a good listener and heard Ashley and the other rich men she was forced to serve, discuss the new Massachusetts state constitution of 1780 which declared each person was “born free and equal.” Mum Bett realized that constitution applied to her, as well as to anyone else and appealed to a prominent lawyer Theodore Sedgwick, an abolitionist, to sue in the courts for her freedom. He took the case and added another of Ashley’s slaves, a man named Brom.
In Brom & Bett v. Ashley, in August, 1781, the Country Court of Common Pleas jury ruled in favor of Sedgwick, a huge victory making Brom and Bett the first black slaves to be freed by the Massachusetts court system. The jury also awarded them 30 shillings each plus court costs. A legal precedent had been set, one which would later be upheld by the state courts in another case, which in turn led to the ultimate abolition of slavery in Massachusetts. Meanwhile Mum Bett changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman and her daughter became Betsy.
Ashley offered to pay Elizabeth to work for him but she declined, instead working for wages in the Sedgwick home as staff to the family and governess to the Sedgwick children. She worked for them until 1808, when she was 66, also earning money as a nurse and midwife. After leaving the Sedgwick home, Elizabeth and her daughter Betsy bought a home and lived together.
When Elizabeth died at the age of 87 in 1829, it was as a free woman, surrounded by her family, a freedom her bold legal action had helped to bring to thousands of other slaves and their families as well.
Born 39 years after her death was one of her great-grandsons, W.E.B. DuBois, who was the first African American to earn a doctorate at Harvard and who became a famous writer and editor, civil rights activist (he was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and a professor.
Success Tip of the Week:
Sometimes a terrible event such as Elizabeth being hit by that shovel can trigger a remarkable series of events no-one could have foreseen. If you have been impacted by something bad, don’t lose hope. It may open a wonderful door you never imagined.
Some people dispute whether DuBois was Elizabeth’s great-grandson, but nobody disputes that he had far greater opportunities in life than she did.
In the next KazanToday:
The woman who became “the mother of medicine in Harlem.”