Freedom & Liberty

During the Revolutionary War, Patriots spoke of “Freedom” and “Liberty” throughout the Commonwealth. But, those words meant something very different to enslaved people living in Massachusetts.

The commerce of slavery was deeply integrated into the Massachusetts economy in the 18th century. Many white colonists, including Colonel John Ashley, who owned this house and the surrounding fields in the 1700s, used enslaved laborers.

This story is about Elizabeth Freeman, who was enslaved in Colonel Ashley’s home. In 1781, during the American Revolution, Freeman and an enslaved man named Brom sued Colonel Ashley for their freedom and won.
What's in a Name?

Elizabeth Freeman held many names over the course of her life, including:

Bett: Her name from birth until 1781, “Bett” appears on her court case. Bett was a very common name for enslaved women at the time and it is not known who gave it to her.

Mumbett or Mum Bett: Later in life the title “Mum” was added to her name. The Sedgwicks and others in the community used this name, and today it is viewed as a sign of respect and admiration. This name remains the most recognizable today.

Elizabeth Freeman: The name that she chose for herself when she won her freedom. Although it does not appear in many other places, it is how she refers to herself in official documents.
140 Years of Slavery
in Massachusetts

Before the American Revolution (1775–1783), slavery existed in all of Britain’s North American colonies. Many New England merchants participated in the slave trade – some by buying and selling enslaved Africans themselves, others by investing in sugar and other crops grown by slave labor.

Slavery was legal and common in Massachusetts from 1641 to 1781. Nearly 5,000 people were enslaved here in 1776, when war broke out between Britain and its American colonies.

With few large plantations in New England, a Massachusetts slaveholder rarely owned a large number of enslaved individuals. But the practice was still brutal. Families were separated. Whippings and other violent punishments were common. Those who managed to run away had nowhere to run to and little hope of evading capture.

At least 12 slave-owning families lived in Sheffield during this time period. Five men and women were enslaved with Col. John Ashley in 1776: John, Zack, Harry, Brom and Bett. They worked in the Ashley household and on the surrounding farmland.
Work on the Ashley Farm

Men enslaved on Col. Ashley’s farm worked in the fields to grow hay, corn, rye, wheat, oats, flax, fruit and tobacco. They raised livestock and worked in Ashley’s sawmill, gristmill, cider mill and weaving shop.

Women enslaved here spent most of their time working inside the house. Bett had to be ready to work at any hour, building and tending the household fires, cooking, cleaning, spinning, sewing, hauling water and ash, and attending to visitors.

Even during her years in slavery Bett was well known in the community for her skills as a nurse and midwife, giving her more independence than other enslaved people. This work connected her with other local families including the Sedgwicks, who later supported her suit for freedom.
From Slavery to Freedom

Bett was born into slavery in the Hudson River Valley of New York sometime in the 1740s. As a child, she was enslaved in the home of Pieter Hogeboom in Claverack, New York. Hogeboom’s daughter Hannah married John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, and at some point they either purchased or inherited Bett. Bett then moved to the Ashley House in Sheffield, and was enslaved here until 1781. After her successful suit for freedom, Bett, now known as Elizabeth Freeman, moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where she lived until her death in 1829.
All Men Are Born Free & Equal

While working in the Ashley home, Bett educated herself by “keeping still and minding things” while prominent Sheffield men discussed politics in the study. In this way, she heard the words of the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, which declared that “all men are born free and equal.”

Bett understood that those words meant that she, too, had a right to be free and equal. In 1781 she met with lawyer Theodore Sedgwick and asked him to represent her in a lawsuit. Sedgwick agreed.

Brom, a man enslaved to Col. Ashley’s son, also joined the suit. The higher legal and social status of men meant that the case was more likely to be taken seriously with Brom involved.

In May 1781, Bett and Brom sued for the right to own themselves in the case now known as Brom and Bett vs. Ashley. Sedgwick argued that Ashley did not own Bett and Brom because slavery was unlawful under the new constitution.

On August 21, 1781, Bett and Brom won their suit and their freedom. Other enslaved individuals had won freedom by claiming abuse, but Bett’s victory was special. It asserted that the entire practice of slavery – not just the abuse that accompanied it – was not legal.

Bett’s suit did not officially end slavery in Massachusetts, but it did make slavery impossible to defend in court. After the suit, many others were freed including all those enslaved with Col. Ashley.

After the trial, Bett chose a new name for herself: Elizabeth Freeman.
The Pursuit of Freedom & Liberty

The belief that all men are born free and equal was central to the American Revolution (1775–1783). The Sheffield Resolves, a petition against British rule debated in the Ashley House, proclaimed that all men had a right to self-government and self-determination. Those same ideas are found in the Declaration of Independence and the Massachusetts Constitution.

Yet slavery was commonplace in the 18th century and many of the authors of these famous documents were slaveholders. Patriots frequently compared the relationship between America and Britain to that of slave and master. In 1774, George Washington warned that the British were “endeavoring by every piece of Art and despotism to fix the Shackles of Slavery upon” residents of the American colonies.

White Patriots fought a war of liberty based on a need to protect their property and manage their own government. But those who were enslaved lacked even the most basic freedoms.
Challenges of Freedom

While Elizabeth Freeman earned enough money to purchase her own home after 22 years of paid service to the Sedgwicks, the men who had been enslaved at the Ashley House were less fortunate.

After losing his suit against Bett and Brom, Col. Ashley freed his remaining slaves, Zack, John, and Harry. Zack left the Ashley house immediately after the court case, but he returned after a few years, and all three men continued to live and work there for the rest of their lives.

Though slavery had ended in Massachusetts, discrimination and segregation remained rampant, making it hard for freed men and women to find profitable work. They were rarely able to vote or attend public schools, and could not serve on juries or even settle in the state if they had not been born there. The threat of being kidnapped and sold back into slavery limited their ability to move elsewhere.
Life as a Free Woman

Once freed, Elizabeth Freeman had no property, little savings, and few options. But, for the first time, she was free to choose where to live and work. Col. Ashley offered her a position as a paid servant, but Freeman turned him down, and instead chose to work for Theodore Sedgwick.

Freeman and her daughter Betsy moved with the Sedgwicks to Stockbridge. As head servant, Freeman nursed Theodore Sedgwick’s ailing wife Pamela and helped raise the couple’s seven children.

In 1803, after 22 years as a free woman, Freeman bought a house and farm of her own in Stockbridge. Over the years, Freeman welcomed her daughter and son-in-law, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, extended family, and friends into her home. Sometimes, as many as four generations lived together on what would become a 19-acre farm, which was just big enough to sustain the large family.

Freeman eventually became the second wealthiest black landowner in the area, after Agrippa Hull.
Elizabeth Freeman's Will

On October 18, 1829, at the age of 85 and in poor health, Elizabeth Freeman created her last will and testament. She could not read or write, so she dictated it to a lawyer. She died two months later on December 28.

A woman filing a will in the 19th century was unusual. A woman’s property legally belonged to her father or husband, unless she was widowed or not married, like Freeman. And most African Americans did not own much property, so they had had little reason to write a will. Elizabeth Freeman’s will testifies to her incredible life journey. When she was enslaved, she did not even own herself. But by her life’s end, Freeman owned far more property than many of her neighbors.

Just two of Freeman’s possessions remain today: her gold beaded necklace and a miniature portrait showing Freeman wearing the beads. Few 19th-century Americans ever had their portraits painted. In fact, no portrait of Col. John Ashley survives. Sedgwick descendents donated the necklace and portrait to the Massachusetts Historical Society. They remain there, alongside the papers of presidents, governors, and Revolutionary heroes – further evidence of Freeman’s unusual life and lasting impact.
Memories of Elizabeth Freeman

Today, most people connect Elizabeth Freeman with her lawsuit for freedom. But the 1781 court case was just one memorable moment in her long and eventful life. After Freeman died, those qualities that made her so extraordinary–morality, courage, intelligence, and strength of character – lived on in the memories of her friends, family, and the Berkshires community.

Freeman’s “determined and resolute character” was present throughout her life, according to Theodore Sedgwick. “She claimed no distinction,” he wrote, “but it was yielded to her from her superior experience, energy, skill, and sagacity.”
Was Elizabeth Freeman an Ancestor of W.E.B. Du Bois

Great Barrington native W.E.B. Du Bois, the father of the Pan-African and American civil rights movements, wrote that his great-grandfather, Jackson Burghardt, was once married to Elizabeth Freeman. But the connection is unlikely.

No evidence exists to show that Freeman and Burghardt, who was 20 years her junior, were ever married. Du Bois himself seemed unsure of the facts and his relatives could only recall a wife named Betsey.

In fact, like many African Americans and formerly enslaved individuals, little is known about Elizabeth Freeman’s family. Freeman refers to her parents in her will and the Sedgwicks wrote that they were born in Africa. But otherwise we know nothing else about them, not even their names. Public records reveal some information about her descendents but the trail runs cold in the mid-1900s.
At Peace in Stockbridge

“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 nor equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a truth, 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!”
– Elizabeth Freeman’s tombstone inscription

Elizabeth Freeman passed away on December 28, 1829, at the age of 85, a beloved member of the Stockbridge community. As a nurse, she had cared for many townspeople, both black and white. At her funeral, the minister proclaimed that “hundreds of persons at this moment attribute the … health of their bodies and the perfection of their limbs …to the faithful care and judicious treatment of this excellent woman.”

The Sedgwick family paid for her funeral and arranged for her burial in their family plot at the Stockbridge Cemetery. At the time, most African Americans were buried in unmarked graves. But Freeman’s marble tombstone and resting place alongside the Sedgwicks testify to her unusual life and the family’s deep affection for her.
The Legacy of Elizabeth Freeman

Elizabeth Freeman’s suit played a key role in abolishing slavery in Massachusetts along with other successful court challenges, growing public opposition to slavery, and the decline of slavery’s economic importance. By 1790, the census recorded no enslaved people in Massachusetts.

Both New York and Connecticut passed gradual emancipation laws that freed the children of enslaved women, but only after they reached a certain age – usually 25. Most enslaved people remained in bondage, so after Massachusetts became free, many African Americans escaped or moved here from nearby states.

As a result, a vibrant African-American community developed in the Berkshires, one that continues to make important contributions to American culture and society to this day. The region has been home to such notable figures as photographer James Van Der Zee; writer James Weldon Johnson; and author and NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois.

The United States permanently abolished slavery in 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified. Despite these legal changes, African Americans still faced prejudice and discrimination. Many people have followed in Elizabeth Freeman’s footsteps by fighting for their rights and their freedom. Freeman proved that with determination and courage, one person can make a difference toward ending injustice.

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Elizabeth Freeman: Fighting for Freedom

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Want to see the exhibit in person? Visit the Ashley House in Sheffield.

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Elizabeth Freeman slideshow

Celebrate African American History Month with this virtual exhibit, which tells the story of Elizabeth Freeman, an enslaved woman who sued for her freedom – and won.

During the Revolutionary War, Patriots spoke of “Freedom” and “Liberty” throughout the Commonwealth. But, those words meant something very different to enslaved people living in Massachusetts.

The commerce of slavery was deeply integrated into the Massachusetts economy in the 18th century. Many white colonists, including Colonel John Ashley, who owned this house and the surrounding fields in the 1700s, used 
enslaved laborers. 

This riveting story about Elizabeth Freeman, who was enslaved in Colonel Ashley's home, and an enslaved man named Brom – was developed by UMASS student interns Jessie McLeod, Elizabeth Bradley, and John Morton. The exhibit displayed at The Ashley House was funded by a grant from the Upper Housatonic African American Heritage Trail.

Click photo above to see virtual exhibit.

Published February 2012

Learn More

Want to see the exhibit in person? Visit the Ashley House in Sheffield.

Learn more about the African American Heritage Trail.

Join Us
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