It is safe to say, that in American schools, slavery is taught as a concept, but rarely is it discussed as an institution that impacted individual people. In school, I remember only talking about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas and their experiences with slavery. It was not until later, that I first began learning about individuals who were affected by slavery and what they did to overcome them. In this first blog post, I am going to talk about Elizabeth Freeman. While she is not discussed at the level that Harriet Tubman is, she is an American hero. Elizabeth Freeman, also known as Mumbet or Bet, was born an enslaved woman in 1742. In her teenage years, she was sold to the Ashley family of Massachusetts. Although she as enslaved, Elizabeth married, but no marriage certificate exists. According to the Elizabeth Freeman Center, in 1780, Mrs. Ashley struck an enslaved girl named Betsy with a heated shovel. Elizabeth used her body to shield the girl from the blow and received a deep gash in her arm. Witnesses say that she kept the wound uncovered while it healed in order to show what her Mistress had done.
Following the Revolutionary War, Elizabeth heard the Massachusetts constitution being read. The part that struck her was in Article one, which says,
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.
This should sound familiar to most Americans. After hearing this, Elizabeth sought out a well known abolitionist-lawyer named Theodore Sedgwick. Elizabeth became the first enslaved person of color to sue for her own freedom. After hearing the Massachusetts constitution, she realized that there was a legal basis for suing for her freedom.
In 1781, Brom and Bett v. Ashley was heard before the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington. Elizabeth’s lawyers argued that the state constitution’s provision that “all men are born free and equal” made slavery in the state illegal. The jury ruled in favor of Elizabeth and she became the first African-American woman to be freed by the Massachusetts constitution. Ultimately, her case set the precedent for the Massachusetts State Supreme Court Case that abolished slavery in Massachusetts. Once she was freed, Elizabeth took the surname Freeman.
Elizabeth Freeman is just one example of a black American woman who has largely been forgotten in American history. Without her, there is no telling how long it would have taken for Massachusetts to abolish slavery.
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