The story of an enslaved woman who went to court to gain her freedom more than 80 years before the Emancipation Proclamation had been relegated to the fringes of history.
A group of civic leaders, activists and historians hope that will end on Sunday in the sleepy town of Sheffield, Massachusetts, with the unveiling of a bronze statue of the woman who chose the name Elizabeth Freeman when she cast off her shackles. slavery 241 years ago.
His story, while remarkable, remains relatively obscure.
State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli grew up not far from Sheffield in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, but he didn’t hear his story until about 20 years ago. He discovered that many of his colleagues at the Statehouse were also largely unaware of the importance 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 unfortunately, black history is what we have not been told or taught.”
The slave, known as Bett, could not read or write, but she listened.
And what he heard made no sense.
While she was working in captivity in the home of Colonel John Ashley, he and other prominent citizens of Sheffield met to discuss their grievances about British tyranny. In 1773, they wrote in what is known as the Sheffield Resolutions that “Mankind in a state of nature is equal, free, and independent of one another.”
Those words were echoed in Article 1 of the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780, which begins “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and inalienable rights.”
Bett, after hearing a public reading of the constitution, is believed to have walked approximately five miles from Ashley’s home to the home of solicitor Theodore Sedgwick, one of the citizens who drafted the Sheffield Resolutions, and asked him to represent her in court. your legal matters. quest for freedom, said Paul O’Brien, president of the Sheffield Historical Society.
Sedgwick and another attorney, Tapping Reeve, took up the case.
Women had limited legal rights in Massachusetts courts at the time, so an Ashley household slave named Brom was added to the case.
The jury agreed with the lawyers and released Bett and Brom on August 21, 1781.
Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and his wife, Diane, are residents of the Berkshires and have been instrumental in fundraising and organizing efforts. They led the ceremony on Sunday.
“What I love about the story is that this extraordinary woman, enslaved, sometimes abused, unable to read, listened intently to the conversation around the table as the men she served discussed the concepts of life, liberty, and freedom. pursuit of happiness as ‘inalienable rights,'” Patrick, the state’s first black governor, said in an email. “I love that this powerless woman can envision these powerful ideas as her own and can persuade others to try that question.” . And I love that the Massachusetts courts had the integrity of purpose to take your question seriously.”
Pignatelli was inspired to erect a statue of Freeman last year when she attended the unveiling of a statue of Susan B. Anthony in Adams, the Berkshire County community where the suffragette was born.
He brought interested parties together and raised about $280,000, enough money for the roughly 8-foot statue, as well as a scholarship fund honoring Freeman for area high school students.
Gwendolyn VanSant, executive director of BRIDGE, an area nonprofit that promotes racial understanding and equity, oversees the scholarships.
He called Freeman an icon and a pioneer. “For me, as a black woman, it’s amazing to follow in her footsteps,” she said.
After the court case, Ashley asked Freeman to return to her home as a paid maid, but she refused, instead going 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, and bought her own property in nearby Stockbridge, VanSant said.
The Sedgwicks had such deep respect for Mumbet that when she died in 1829, at about the age of 85, she was buried with them, the only non-family member on the family plot. Much of what historians know about her was written by one of Theodore Sedgwick’s daughters, the novelist Catharine Maria Sedgwick, O’Brien said.
The statue, made by renowned sculptor Brian Hanlon, was placed on the property of the First Congregational Church in Sheffield, not far from Sedgwick’s home.
“We don’t know if Elizabeth Freeman went to church, but we do know that Ashley did, and it was common for slavers to bring enslaved people to care for their children in church,” O’Brien said.
Although some 200 people were expected to attend Sunday’s opening, the culmination of three days of celebrations, organizers have been unable to find any Freeman descendants.
VanSant hopes a permanent memorial will spark interest in Freeman’s story. “Perhaps their descendants will find us,” she said.