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This Enslaved Woman Sued for Her Freedom and Helped End Slavery in Massachusetts

March 22, 2019 in History

By Abigail Higgins

A portrait of Elizabeth Freeman, also known as Mum Bett, on display by the Massachusetts legislature in observance of Black History Month. She was the first female slave set free under the state constitution after she sued for her freedom in 1781.

In 1780, the proclamation “all men are born free and equal,” rang out from the central square in the small town of Sheffield in western Massachusetts. The line was from the state’s newly ratified constitution, read aloud for a proud public to hear. America’s war for independence was raging and, like the rest of the burgeoning country, the town was gripped by revolutionary fever.

But one woman who heard it wasn’t inspired—she was enraged. Elizabeth Freeman, then known only as “Bett,” was an enslaved woman who understood the irony in the declaration right away. As she watched the men around her declare freedom from oppressive rule, it only stood to reason that she should do the same.

Freeman marched, by some accounts immediately, to the house of Theodore Sedgwick, a prominent local lawyer, and demanded a dramatic accounting for the hypocrisy: she wanted to sue the state of Massachusetts for her freedom.

“I heard that paper read yesterday, that says all men are born equal and that every man has a right to freedom,” she said, “I am not a dumb critter; won’t the law give me my freedom?”

Perhaps surprisingly, Sedgwick agreed to represent her. Her trial the following year became what has been called “the trial of the century,” rocking not only Massachusetts but the entire institution of slavery.

“She was kind of the Rosa Parks of her time,” says David Levinson, author along with Emilie Piper of One Minute a Free Woman, a book about Freeman.

Slavery in America (TV-PG; 3:01)

Massachusetts occupied an odd place in the history of slavery. It was the first colony to legalize the practice and its residents were active in the slave trade.
What made it different, however, was that state law recognized enslaved people as both property and as persons— which meant they could prosecute the men who owned them, requiring they prove lawful ownership. By 1780, nearly 30 enslaved people had sued for their freedom on the basis of a variety of technicalities, such as a reneged promise of freedom or an illegal purchase.

Freeman’s case, however, was different. She didn’t seek her …read more


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