Elizabeth Freeman: The first black Justice

By Walter Opinde, Black Then

Who could ever imagine of a slave filing and winning a case in the U.S. Court of Law during the slavery or post-slavery era?

Well, this lady- Mam Bett did it!

Elizabeth Freeman, commonly referred to by some historians as Mum Bett or Mumbet, was the first African-American slave to file and win a freedom suit in the U.S. state of Massachusetts. The court ruling by the “Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court” in favor of Freeman found that slavery was inconsistent with the 1780 Constitution of the State of Massachusetts. Her lawsuit “Brom and Bett vs. Ashley- 1781,” was later referred to during the Massachusetts Judicial Supreme Court’s appellate review of another well-known freedom suit by Quock Walker. As soon as the Supreme Court upheld the Walker’s freedom under the Massachusetts State Constitution, the ruling, in reference to Elizabeth’s freedom suit, was regarded by many historians to have unequivocally ended slavery in the state of Massachusetts. Mum Bett is thereby considered a significant historical figure in the fight for the end slavery, human rights, and equality, which ultimately led to the abolition of slavery in the state of Massachusetts in adherence to the ruling by the Supreme Court.

Mum Bett, born- Elizabeth Freeman was born around 1742, to an enslaved African couples at Pieter Hogeboom’s farm in Claverack, New York. At a tender age of merely six months, Elizabeth, alongside her sister were sold to another master, Colonel John Ashley, in Sheffield, Massachusetts. She served Ashley until she was about forty years of age, a time when she was already known as Mum Bett. John Ashley was a prominent American citizen who served as a judge at the Berkshire Court of Common Pleas.

Due to mistreatments and physical abuse from Mr. Ashley’s wife, Mum Bett fled her home and refused to return after finding a sympathetic ear by the attorney- Sedgwick Theodore, who was the father of the famous writer- Catherine Sedgwick. Every time Mumbet served dinner to her masters, she always overheard them speak about freedom (i.e. the freedom of the U.S. from the British). As such, the illiterate Mum Bett applied the same concept of freedom and equality to all her situations.

Consequently, through the help of Mr. Sedgwick, Freeman initiated the case of Brom and Bett vs. Ashley in 1781, thereby setting the initial foundation for the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts. The court ruled in favor of Freeman, and as soon as she was free, she continued to stay with the Sedgwick’s family as a respected servant, and with a lot of gratitude to Mr. Sedgwick Theodore. She later died on 28th December 1828, at the age of 85 years and as a free woman.

Elizabeth Freeman, a.k.a Mum Bett is thereby 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 slaves’ trade in the United States.

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