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Elizabeth Mumbet Freeman, Rule of Law, and the End of Slavery

The Americans Who Tell the Truth project has become all about education. Primarily, though, the education has been my own. Over the past ten years, I have learned a great deal about American history, why our history is the way it is, and some of the people who have guided its positive evolution. Many of the people I’ve painted were totally unknown to me before I began the portrait series. And many of these were urged on me by people who wrote with compelling stories of people they thought should be included in the series. I’d like to share the most recent recommendation with you.

A few days ago I received this email:

Hello Mr. Shetterly,

I clean the restrooms on 3rd shift at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.  I was moved to McGuffey Hall a few weeks ago and have been fascinated by your paintings because they look like they could come right off of the canvas and talk to me.  Every night when I am walking that hallway I think of one thing...Someone is missing...It's Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman.  She would be a worthy subject for your series, in my opinion with the highlighted quote of course!  My husband says they should erect a monument of her right next to Thomas Jefferson (America's revered slave owner.)  I think it would be wonderful to see her portrait on that wall some day!  What do you think?  Here's more of her quote: 

“Well, Mr. Sedgwick, I was listening to the reading of the new law. I heard it said that all men are created equal and that every man has a right to freedom.

Now I ain’t no dumb critter! Won’t the law give me my freedom?  Isn’t that what the law says, Mr. Sedgwick?”

--- Dolores Volk

I immediately wrote back to Dolores and asked for more information about “Mumbet,” but before I even got her answer, I began my own research. Elizabeth – “Bett” – was born in upstate New York in 1742—45 years before Sojourner Truth—and, like Sojourner, into slavery on a Dutch farm.

Her master, Pieter Hogeboom, “gave” Bett to his daughter Hannah when she married John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts. There Bett remained a slave until 1780, when, as the Revolutionary War ended, the Declaration of Independence was being read aloud to the public in communities throughout the colonies.

Bett was present at the reading in Sheffield, and, very moved by the language about unalienable rights and equality, she went right away to a young lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick, and said what is quoted above in Dolores’ email. Mr. Sedgwick, impressed with Elizabeth and opposed to slavery himself, decided to take her case which became Brom and Bett vs Ashley. When the case was heard in August 1741 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the jury ruled in Bett’s favor. On August 22, 1781, she was granted not only her freedom but also compensation for lost wages (thirty shillings) for all the years she worked as a slave with no pay. Shortly afterwards, her case was cited in the State Supreme Court when it stuck down the legality of slavery in Massachusetts.

Bett then went to work – with pay – in her lawyer’s house and helped to raise his children. One child, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, loved and admired Bett and, after Bett´s death in 1829, wrote her biography, which was published as Slavery in Massachusetts in Bentley’s Miscellany.

I recommend reading Catherine Sedgwick’s account of Bett’s life. It’s full of surprising, vivid anecdotes and wonderful quotations. For instance, Ms. Sedgwick writes, “I have heard her [Bett] say with an emphatic shake of the head peculiar to her, ‘Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it – just to stand one minute on God’s airth a free woman – I would.’”

Ms. Segdwick also tells the story of  Bett standing between  herself and her nasty mistress,  Hannah Ashley, who was attempting to strike Bett’s sister Lizzy with a red hot shovel pulled from a cooking fire. Lizzy had scraped some dough for herself from the oak bowl that was used to knead the family bread. Hannah accused Lizzy of stealing. Bett took the blow on her arm. Cut to the bone and burned, she did not cover it for the weeks that it took to heal, and was left with a terrible scar. Bett said, “Madam never again laid her hand on Lizzy. 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!”

There are several points here that I would like to emphasize. The first is that I was told about Ms. Freeman (the name she took upon the success of her case) not by a student at Miami University and not by a professor, but by a woman, Dolores Volk, who cleans bathrooms -- the kind of work that Bett did. Dolores´ letter gets at the core of what this project is about. It’s not meant solely for our educational institutions: Its intention is to invite everyone to be involved, to own it, for it will take all of us citizens to wrest control of our government from corporate and military power so that our destiny can serve the common good.

Secondly, having just passed the 231st anniversary of the court case that ended Bett’s slavery in Massachusetts, why is this story not more commonly known? We need the stories of Barbara Johns, Claudette Colvin, Samantha Smith, Emma Tenayuca, LeAlan Jones, Bett Freeman, and so many other courageous, inspiring  people who insisted that this country live up to its ideals. They embolden and empower us to do today´s work of justice and equality to make the world a better place.

Finally, consider how this change happened. An illiterate slave filed a case in court by appealing to the newly written ideals of the Declaration of Independence. Ironically, seventy-six years later, in 1857, the Supreme Court´s Dred Scott Decision stripped black citizens of their legal rights, including the right to challenge their status as property. The Supreme Court affirmed that property rights trump unalienable rights. Bett’s suit would have been illegal following that decision.

In the South, Bett could not have won her case, much less survived trying to file it. But the case could be brought to court and argued in the legal and political atmosphere of revolutionary Massachusetts where words were considered to have meaning, and meaning to have consequence. As Bett realized, “all men are endowed” and “unalienable rights” applied as equally to her as to her white lawyer, or they meant nothing.

Elizabeth Freeman’s story illustrates the great bounty of living in a system whose legal concern is justice: a marginalized person -- black, female, indigent, enslaved, illiterate -- appeals to the law to grant her remedy from her complaint of injustice. If the democratic rule of law does not allow this, it isn’t democracy. It is that sense of justice which can offer security to all of us. It is that sense of justice, far too rare in our country today, which makes the rule of law a blessing rather than a tragedy of cynical hypocrisy.

Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly is a writer and artist who lives in Brooksville, Maine and the author of the book, "Americans Who Tell the Truth." Please visit the Americans Who Tell the Truth project's website, where posters of Howard Zinn, Rachel Carson, Edward Snowden, and scores of others are now available. Send Rob an email here.

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