As she waited for Master Ashley’s orders, Mum Bett studied the Patriots who sat around the Ashley table. Their voices rose as they dreamed of freedom for these 13 colonies. By keeping still and minding things, the enslaved woman heard words that made her heart leap.
“All are free and equal.”
When someone read the new Massachusetts Constitution out loud, she didn’t understand all the words, but this much was clear: Life. Liberty. Happiness. For everyone. Nothing was said about man or woman or the color of someone’s skin. Everyone.
Months passed. In the Ashley household, Mum Bett worked in silence, watching over her sister, Lizzie, and her daughter, Young Bett, who was also enslaved by the Ashleys. Mum Bett avoided Mistress Ashley’s shrewish temper until one day, in a fit of rage, the mistress aimed a hot kitchen shovel at Lizzie’s head. Mum Bett charged, and pushed Lizzie out of harm’s way. Her own arm took the shovel’s heat.
Mum Bett’s skin sizzled. From that day on, Mum Bett rolled her sleeve up to display the ugly scar. When the Ashleys’ guests asked, “How did you get that mark?”, Mum Bett stared at Mrs. Ashley. “Ask her.”
One fine spring day, while Mum Bett hung laundry on the line, a hawk’s throaty cry pierced the air and drew her eyes upward where the bird floated on an air current, utterly free. That hawk knows nothing of enslavers or enslaved, black or white, Mum Bett realized. It was bad enough she herself was enslaved, but didn’t Young Bett deserve life? Liberty? Happiness?
A man’s kind face flashed through her mind. Lawyer Theodore Sedgwick had often sat with the other Patriots at the Ashley table. Could he help her? She set her face toward freedom and walked miles to stand before his front door. Mum Bett knocked.
Mr. Sedgwick answered.
“Sir,” Mum Bett said. “I heard that paper read saying all folks are born equal, and everyone has a right to freedom. I am not a dumb critter! Won’t the law set me free?”
“Come in. Would you like a cup of tea?” As she waited for the lawyer to return, prickles ran down Mum Bett’s spine, icy as the waves that had brought her parents on a slaver’s ship from Africa. Would this man help her gain her freedom?
When Sedgwick entered the parlor, words flew from Mum Bett’s mouth. “I wasn’t born to be any man’s property.”
Sedgwick’s brow furrowed. “Why come to me?”
She held out her arm with its blistering burn. “You were with those men writing about life and liberty. You believe in freedom.”
Sedgwick cleared his throat. “I believe the colonies have the right to be free from England.”
“Life. Liberty. Happiness. I want what that new constitution says is mine.” Mum Bett didn’t care what Master Ashley did. She didn’t care about the names that Mrs. Ashley called her. She felt better when she remembered the words of the new constitution: life, liberty and happiness for everyone.
“Is it so important for you to be free?”
Mum Bett’s smile shone. “If one minute’s freedom was offered and my death come right after, I’d take it.” She opened her arms wide. “Just to stand one minute a free woman on God’s earth. Imagine! Me, free!”
Sedgwick stood and paced the length of the parlor. Mum Bett grew agitated. What if he refused to help her? After long minutes, Sedgwick stopped in front of her. “I will take your case.”
She let out the breath she had been holding. She returned to the Ashley home, where Mrs. Ashley eyed her with suspicion—as if Mum Bett planned to steal their silver, and jewelry, too.
Lizzie cowered. “Why’d you have to stir things up?”
“Our time is a-coming,” Mum Bett whispered. “Stand tall, now.”
No matter how afraid she was, she desired freedom. Beatings didn’t scare Mum Bett, but her heart sank with dread that the Ashleys might punish her for the nerve of craving freedom by selling her daughter or sister away from her. Late at night, when her thoughts buzzed like angry hornets, Mum Bett wept.
The day of the trial dawned bright and clear. People traveled from miles around to cram into the Great Barrington Courthouse. Questions flew through the crowd. What kind of lawyer represented slaves? What manner of slaves knew about the new constitution?
“Slaves suing for freedom!” Some people laughed. “What will they think of next?”
Mum Bett shrank as she entered the courtroom. Who was she to think this jury would grant her the constitution’s promise?
The jury was all white. The jury was all white men.
Mum Bett could not read the jurors’ faces. She watched them intently as Sedgwick argued: “The constitution’s promise of freedom extends to all people, including slaves.”
When the talking was done, the jury left the courtroom. Mum Bett went out into the stifling summer day and thought of the Patriots who fought bloody battles for their small nation’s independence. Her freedom could only come from courage and the courthouse, not from cannons and bullets. This legal case was her Lexington, her Bunker Hill.
Locked inside the courthouse, the jurors debated the lawyers’ arguments. Outside, Mum Bett panicked. If the jury ruled against her, what would happen?
Spectators crowded back into the courthouse. Mum Bett took her place next to Mr. Sedgwick. When the jury returned, she gripped her seat and leaned forward to hear their verdict. Just when Mum Bett thought she might faint, she heard, “Bett is not the legal Negro servant of John Ashley during her life.”
What did that mean?
She didn’t stir until someone patted Mr. Sedgwick on the back. His smile gave the joyous news: All enslaved people in Massachusetts would soon be free!
She jumped out of her seat and gave a whoop. She was free!
Mum Bett had been called a lot of things in her life. Now it was her turn to name herself: Elizabeth Freeman.
When the Patriots won their war in 1783, Elizabeth Freeman could say she was the first freed enslaved woman in a free state in a new, free nation. For Elizabeth, her family, for all citizens of Massachusetts: