Elizabeth Freeman Escaped Slavery With a Courtroom Victory

Brilliance | Dec. 19, 2017

For Black History Month, Curiosity is highlighting the inspirational stories that you should know (but probably don't) of people who have changed the world.

Elizabeth Freeman was a slave in the late 1700s in Massachusetts. But Freeman, better known by the name Mum Bett, didn't let that title define her life. In 1781, Bett sued for her freedom, and that's exactly what she got. Cue the standing ovation.

Her Incredible Backstory

"Any time, any time 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 [sic] a free woman— I would." — Elizabeth Freeman, aka Mum Bett

Mum Bett was the daughter of enslaved parents, and was purchased at the age of six months, alongside her sister, by John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts. Decades later, Ashley's mistress tried hitting Bett's sister with a heated kitchen shovel. Bett courageously intervened and took the blow instead. Understandably infuriated, Bett stormed out and refused to go back to that family. Ashley ordered her back, and Mum Bett essentlally replied, "I'll see ya in court!"

A Monumental Victory

Around the time of the shovel incident, Bett learned of the language that was used in Massachusetts' new state constitution. She believed that the idea that "all men are born free and equal" applied to her and to all slaves in the state. Lawyer Theodore Sedgewick agreed with her, and helped Bett argue her case in court. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling found slavery to be inconsistent with the 1780 Massachusetts State Constitution, and Bett won her freedom (plus thirty shillings and cost of labor) from Ashley. The other slaves in Massachusetts won too. Bett's court case ultimately led to the abolition of slavery statewide.

As PBS explains, Bett passed away in 1829 as a free woman "surrounded by her children and grandchildren in the free state of Massachusetts that she had helped to create. One of her great-grandchildren was W.E.B. DuBois, born almost forty years later in Great Barrington, the very town where her historic case was argued."

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