Friday, February 23, 2018

For Black History Month, The Story of Elizabeth Freeman, or "Mumbet"

W. E. B. DuBois
W. E. B. DuBois was born on February 23, 1868 and is celebrated as a sociologist, historian, educator and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909.  

DuBois' maternal great great grandfather was Tom Burghardt, a slave born in West Africa around 1730, who briefly served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution.  DuBois also liked to claim that he was a descendent of Elizabeth Freeman, the first enslaved African American woman in Massachusetts to sue for and win her freedom. It's more likely, though that they were only vaguely related by marriage (perhaps Elizabeth Freeman was Tom Burghardt's mother-in-law).  Nonetheless, one cannot blame DuBois for wanting to claim Freeman as an ancestor, because she is an exceptional figure.   

Elizabeth Freeman
Born into slavery and known as "Mumbet," or sometimes just "Bett," the woman who would later choose to rename herself Elizabeth Freeman was given to John and Hannah Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts in her early teens. During her enslavement to the Ashleys, she had a child called Betsy. (It is Betsy who may have become the later life second wife of DuBois's ancestor Burghardt, but Betsy was not the mother of any of Burghardt's children, and therefore no relation to DuBois.)

In 1780, Hannah Ashley struck at Betsy with a heated shovel.  Bett intervened, shielded her daughter, and receive the blow intended for Betsy.  This resulted in a deep wound on her arm that left her scarred for life.  She later said, "I had a bad arm all winter, but Madam had the worst of it. I never covered the wound, and when people said to me, before Madam, 'Betty, what ails your arm?' I only answered,  'ask missis!'" 

Around the same time, Bett heard the Massachusetts Constitution read aloud, either at a public gathering in Sheffield, or perhaps at a meeting John Ashley held in his home.  These words from Article 1 captured her imagination:

“All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”

Inspired, she sought out Theodore Sedgwick, a Stockbridge attorney and abolitionist, to represent her as she sued for her freedom under the newly ratified state constitution. The case was heard in the Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in August 1781.  When the jury ruled in Bett’s favor, she became the first African American woman to be set free under the Massachusetts constitution.  Her case, Brom and Bett v. Ashley, served as precedent in the State Supreme Court case that brought an end to the practice of slavery in Massachusetts.

After Freeman won the lawsuit, the Ashley family asked her to return to work for them for wages, but she refused.  Instead she was employed by Thomas Sedgwick as governess to his children.  Additionally, she became a well known midwife in Stockbridge, and a practitioner of the healing arts.  When the Sedgwick children were all grown, Freeman retired and moved to her own house in Stockbridge near Betsy, and Betsy's children.  

Catherine Maria Sedgwick
One of Sedgwick's daughters was the popular novelist Catherine Maria Sedgwick, who remained devoted to her old caregiver, and wrote about her.  When Freeman died, Catherine Sedgwick arranged for her to be buried in the Sedgwick family plot in the Stockbridge Cemetery, in a section called "The Sedgwick Pie" because of its shape and layout.  Freeman is the only non-family member interred there. 

Catherine Sedgwick composed Freeman's epitaph, which reads, 

"ELIZABETH FREEMAN, also known by the name of MUMBET died Dec. 28th 1829. Her supposed age was 85 Years. 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 or equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust, 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."

Fun facts:  When Freeman's story was told in the animated children's series Liberty's Kids, her voice was provided by actress Yolanda King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.   Among the modern-day descendants of the Sedgwicks are actresses Edie Sedgwick (of  Warhol Factory fame) and Edie's cousin Kyra Sedgwick (one degree from her husband, actor Kevin Bacon).

Interesting Legacy: A women's shelter in Berkshire County, Massachusetts that serves victims of domestic violence is called the Elizabeth Freeman Center in honor of Freeman's spirit of righteousness.   

Elizabeth Freeman's headstone in the "Sedgwick Pie" at Stockbridge Cemetery.

UPDATE, April 3, 2018:  It has been announced that Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer ("The Help," "The Shape of Water, "Hidden Figures") will serve as Executive Producer of a feature film about Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman.  The screenplay, tentatively titled "Mumbet," is by Stephen Glantz, and is based on the book “A Free Woman on God’s Earth” by Jana Laiz and Ann-Elizabeth Barnes. Casting has not been announced, but Ms. Spencer seems a good choice to play Elizabeth Freeman.