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Mumbet: Truth Was Her Nature (continued)

Mumbet and Ashley House

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Visit Ashley House in Sheffield.

Find out more about the African American Heritage Trail and the Upper Housatonic Valley Heritage Area.

Learn more about the Sedgwick Society.

Dr. Laurie Robertson-Lorant is author of Melville: A Biography (1996 and 1998) and The Man Who Lived Among the Cannibals: Poems in the Voice of Herman Melville (2005). She is a Full-Time Visiting Lecturer in the Education Department at UMass Dartmouth.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of Special Places, The Trustees' member magazine. To subscribe, join The Trustees today.

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Sedgwick agreed to take her case, but because women had no rights in courts of law, he asked Cato Brom, another slave, to serve as co-plaintiff in the suit and filed a writ requesting their release. Finding that the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights had already confirmed all persons free by natural right, the Court ruled that Brom and Bett were free.    

Bett took the name Elizabeth Freeman, and she and Lizzie went to work in the Sedgwick household. Years later, she told Catharine Sedgwick, “Anytime, anytime 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 airth a free woman – I would.”
     
In 1785, Theodore Sedgwick moved his family to a mansion on the Main Street of Stockbridge, not far from the Mission House. Sadly, his wife Pamela Dwight Sedgwick was incapacitated by severe depression and could not take care of her children, so “Mumbet, that noble woman” whom the Sedgwick children called “Mah Bett,” “Mum-Bett,” and “Mother Bett,” became “the main pillar” of the Sedgwick household.
    
Mumbet was as resourceful as she was brave. During Shays’ Rebellion, when outraged farmers were looting and burning the homes of the “ruffled shirts,” as they called the aristocrats, Judge Sedgwick moved his family to safety and left the servants in charge of the house. Mumbet hid the family’s jewelry and silver plate in a large oaken chest, under her mother’s dress and the silks and chintzes she dearly loved to wear. One day, a gang of rebels burst into the house looking for valuables, and when they reached Bett’s small room and spotted her locked chest at the foot of the bed, they ordered her to open it. Undaunted, she cried out, “You and your men are no better than I thought. You call me ‘wench’ and ‘nigger’ and you are not above rummaging through my chest.” When she shouted defiantly, “You will have to break it open to do it,” the men “slunk away” like whipped curs.
     
When she was on her deathbed, the doctor asked her if she was afraid to meet her God, and she replied, “No, sir. I am not afeard. I have tried to do my duty, and I am not afeard!” After Mumbet’s death in 1829, Catharine praised “her strong love of justice,” her “incorruptible integrity,” and her “intelligent industry,” as well as other virtues. “I do not believe that any amount of temptation could have induced Mumbet to swerve from truth. She knew nothing of the compromises of timidity or the overwrought conscientiousness of bigotry. Truth was her nature – the offspring of courage and loyalty.”
    
Now that you know some of Mumbet’s story, gentle reader, you will surely want to visit the Ashley House in Sheffield, which now belongs to The Trustees of Reservations. You will enjoy its country setting and its wood-paneled rooms and elegant furnishings, secure in the knowledge that the remarkable woman who cleaned and polished the wide pine-board floors you will walk on in this handsome colonial home was the heroic Elizabeth Freeman, or “Mumbet.”

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Learn More

Visit Ashley House in Sheffield.

Find out more about the African American Heritage Trail and the Upper Housatonic Valley Heritage Area.

Learn more about the Sedgwick Society.

Dr. Laurie Robertson-Lorant is author of Melville: A Biography (1996 and 1998) and The Man Who Lived Among the Cannibals: Poems in the Voice of Herman Melville (2005). She is a Full-Time Visiting Lecturer in the Education Department at UMass Dartmouth.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of Special Places, The Trustees' member magazine. To subscribe, join The Trustees today.

Join Us
Donate
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