Statue honors once-enslaved woman who won her freedom in court


The story of the enslaved woman who went to court to win her freedom more than 80 years before the Emancipation Proclamation has been pushed to the fringes of history.

A group of civic leaders, activists and historians hope it will end in the sleepy town of Sheffield, Mass., on Sunday with the unveiling of a bronze statue of the woman who chose Elizabeth’s name. Freeman when she cast off the chains of slavery 241 years ago to the day.

Its history, although remarkable, remains relatively obscure.

State Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli grew up not far from Sheffield in the western Berkshires of Massachusetts, but only heard his story about 20 years ago. He discovered that many of his Statehouse colleagues were also largely unaware of the significance of his case, which set the legal precedent that essentially ended slavery in Massachusetts.

“She is clearly a hidden figure in American history, and I truly believe that black history is American history,” said Pignatelli, a Democrat. “But sadly, black history is what we weren’t told and taught.”

The slave, known as Bett, could not read or write, but she listened.

And what she heard made no sense.

While working in servitude in the household of Colonel John Ashley, he and other prominent citizens of Sheffield met to discuss their grievances against British tyranny. In 1773 they wrote in what are called the Sheffield Resolutions that “men in a state of nature are equal, free and independent of one another”.

These words were repeated in Article 1 of the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780, which begins with “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and inalienable rights.”

It is believed that Bett, after hearing a public reading of the constitution, walked about 5 miles from the Ashley house to the home of barrister Theodore Sedgwick, one of the citizens who drafted the Sheffield resolutions, and him asked to represent her in her legal affairs. quest for freedom, said Paul O’Brien, president of the Sheffield Historical Society.

Sedgwick and another attorney, Tapping Reeve, took on the case.

Women had limited legal rights in Massachusetts courts at the time, so a male slave from the Ashley household named Brom was added to the case.

The jury agreed with the lawyers, releasing Bett and Brom on August 21, 1781.

Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and his wife, Diane, reside in the Berkshires and have been instrumental in fundraising and organizing efforts. They lead the ceremony on Sunday.

“What I love about the story is that this remarkable, enslaved, sometimes brutalized woman, unable to read, listened intently to the conversation around the table as the men she served discussed life concepts, freedom and the pursuit of happiness as ‘inalienable rights,” Patrick, the state’s first black governor, said in an email. “I love that this powerless woman can imagine these powerful ideas as her own and can persuade others to test this question. And I love that the Massachusetts courts had the integrity of purpose to take his question seriously.

Pignatelli was inspired to raise a statue of Freeman last year when he attended the unveiling of a statue of Susan B. Anthony in Adams, the Berkshire county community where the suffragette was born.

He brought together stakeholders and raised about $280,000, enough money for the roughly 8-foot statue, as well as a scholarship fund in Freeman’s honor for high school students in the region.

Gwendolyn VanSant, CEO of BRIDGE, a nonprofit that promotes racial understanding and equity, oversees the scholarships.

She called Freeman an icon and a trailblazer. “For me, as an African-American woman, it’s amazing to walk in his footsteps,” she said.

After the trial, Ashley asked Freeman to return to her home as a paid servant, but she refused and instead went to work for Sedgwick, where she helped raise her children and was known by the affectionate name of Mumbet.

She was a healer, nurse and midwife, who bought her own property in nearby Stockbridge, VanSant said.

The Sedgwicks had such deep respect for Mumbet that when she died in 1829 aged around 85, she was buried with them, the only non-family member of the family plot. Much of what historians know about her was written by one of Theodore Sedgwick’s daughters, novelist Catharine Maria Sedgwick, O’Brien said.

The statue, cast by renowned sculptor Brian Hanlon, is placed on the grounds of First Congregational Church in Sheffield, not far from Sedgwick House.

“We don’t know if Elizabeth Freeman attended church, but we do know that Ashley did, and it was common for slavers to bring slaves to care for their children in church” , O’Brien said.

Although some 200 people are expected to attend Sunday’s unveiling, the culmination of three days of celebrations, organizers could not find any of Freeman’s descendants.

VanSant hopes a permanent memorial will spur interest in Freeman’s story. “Perhaps his descendants will find us,” she said.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.


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