Learn more about Elizabeth Freeman's fight for freedom.
Plan a visit to the Ashley House in Sheffield.
Photo (left to right): Representative Gloria Fox, Joanna Ballantine (The Trustees), Dyan Wiley (The Trustees), Tammy Denease (re-enacting Mum Bett), Representative Smitty Pignatelli, Auditor Suzanne Bump, and Senator Linda Dorcena Forry.
Mum Bett, one of the most important historic figures in the Commonwealth but virtually unknown outside of the Berkshires, was honored by state and local officials. Mum Bett, as an enslaved person, lived in the Sheffield home of Colonel John Ashley, from whom she successfully sued for her freedom. The Trustees maintain the Ashley House to help keep the history of the period (and Elizabeth’s story) alive for generations to come.
The event was co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Black and Latino Caucus and state Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox. He said, “Her story is hidden in the jewels of history. She was an important figure in local and national history but has never received the credit she deserved.” Mum Bett was the first African-American slave to win her freedom in a landmark case in 1781 – more than 80 years before the Emancipation Proclamation was adopted. What inspired this action by a woman who could not read or write?
John Ashley was a lawyer, landowner, businessman and community leader. His house was the site of many political discussions and the probable location of the signing of the Sheffield Resolves, which informed the subsequent state constitution and Declaration of Independence. As Mum Bett served these local leaders, she overheard discussions about freedom and equality and decided these concepts must apply to her, as well. She later heard the state constitution read at Sheffield and these words, “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.” This motivated her to seek her own freedom. After winning her case, she took the name Elizabeth Freeman, and joined her lawyer’s household, where she worked as their housekeeper for 20 years. She saved enough money to buy land in Stockbridge and lived there with her daughter, grandchildren, and great grandchildren until her death at age 83.
At the State House, Representative Byron Rushing, D-Boston, gave a powerful speech in which he said “We can only appreciate slavery if we understand how horrific, difficult and systematic it really was. Let us hear and heed Elizabeth Freeman.” The highlight of the event was a performance by Connecticut actress Tammy Denease who has performed Bett for several years. She will bring this hero of history alive again this summer for the annual Mum Bett Day Celebration on August 16 at the Ashley House.
Note: Excerpts courtesy of Berkshire Eagle article by Derek Gentile, 2.26.2014.
Published March 2014