Another one of the many successful women I'd like to celebrate is Elizabeth Freeman. Born into slavery around 1744 as “Mum Bett”, she would later bravely challenge the newly adopted Massachusetts State Constitution in 1781 to win her freedom.
Bett could not read or write, but she was clever and strategic. It was reported that Bett’s mistress, Mrs. Ashley, treated her slaves with extreme cruelty. Mrs. Ashley attempted to strike Bett’s sister with a heated kitchen shovel, but Bett protected her by blocking the blow, resulting in a serious wound on her arm that never properly healed. Yet instead of covering her arm, Bett wore her scar as evidence of her mistreatment.
Colonel Ashley, Bett's master and an affluent judge, moderated the local committee that wrote the Sheffield Declaration in 1773. The declaration stated that “mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property.” The same language was used in the United States Declaration of Independence of 1776 and in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Evidence suggests that Bett overheard these ideas at events Colonel Ashley held in his home and at public square readings. Turning to Theodore Sedgwick, a prominent attorney who helped draft the Sheffield Declaration with Colonel Ashley, Bett, along with an enslaved man named Brom, instigated the process of fighting for their freedom. Historians note that Sedgwick, along with many of the lawyers in the area, tested this case to determine if slavery was constitutional under the new Massachusetts Constitution.
Once she gained her freedom, Mum Bett changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman. Colonel Ashley proffered her on multiple occasions to return to his home as a paid servant, all which she declined. She instead accepted employment as a paid domestic worker in Theodore Sedgwick’s household, and later, became a prominent healer, midwife, and nurse. After 20 years, Freeman bought her own house where she lived with her children. Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman died in 1829 at the age of 85, and was buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, as the only non-Sedgwick buried in the “inner circle” of the family plot.
While Freeman's birth into slavery was not her choice, her tenacity changed the course of her fate. Freeman's abolition became a beacon of hope for other enslaved blacks, begetting a group of “freedom suits” that ultimately lead the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to outlaw slavery in their state. Throughout history, women like Elizabeth Freedom exemplify fortune favoring the bold.
Our determination and action can change the fortune of those in need. Education is an essential foundation for children's growth, and the electricity from solar LED lamps serve as an important tool for school children in an off-grid rural community in Burma. Support our campaign to provide solar LED lamps to children in need.
A statue of Elizabeth Freeman - National Museum of African American History