Madelaine “Madelaine” Guy, a enslaved African-American woman, was the first African-American woman to be listed in the American Library Association’s database of “Most Frequently Challenged Books.” (She was also the first enslaved African-American woman to be given freedom by US law.) Madelaine was born in South Carolina in 1781, and was owned by Captain William Guy, who owned several plantations in the area. The Guy’s owned a slave named Jane who was a skilled field hand, and was also a mixed-race woman. When Jane was 19 years old, Captain Guy began to treat her more violently, in a manner that was more in line with a master and a slave than a master and a servant

The 1780s were an era of political upheaval in the American colonies. Benjamin Franklin served as the first United States Ambassador to France, while George Washington led an army against British troops in the Revolutionary War. With the war almost won, the French Revolution was in full swing. Slavery in the colonies was still legal, and many African-Americans were still enslaved after 1770. One African-American woman in particular rose up in rebellion against her owners, suing them in court for her freedom.

Many people think that since the Civil War ended slavery, that slavery is no longer a problem. This is simply not the case. Slavery is still practiced all over the world, but it tends to be hidden, and there are very few people who have the courage to tell the world about it, and try to do something about it.

Freeman, also known as “Mum Bett,” successfully challenged her slavery in court using wording from Massachusetts’ state constitution.

With the American Revolution raging, one enslaved lady saw a chance to express her independence in 1780. She contacted a neighbor for legal help after hearing the new state of Massachusetts’ constitution, which contained the phrase “All men are born free and equal,” read aloud in the public square. Mum Bett, as the plaintiff was called, launched a lawsuit in an attempt to reclaim her liberty. For the first time in American history, a lawsuit was filed to challenge the legality of slavery—and it won. 

In recent years, historians have worked to depict enslaved individuals who were overwhelmingly illiterate and thus unable to leave accounts of their own in three dimensions, as historians have worked to portray in three dimensions enslaved individuals who were overwhelmingly illiterate and thus unable to leave accounts of their own. White authorities collecting census data, White slaveowners maintaining ledgers, White newspaper editors establishing the style of runaway notices, and White attorneys producing legal papers were the only glimpses of enslaved people’s life included into the record. New and deeper research has started to counterbalance that bias in a small but significant manner.

Most people in the United States conceive of slavery as a practice that happened before the Civil War in the southern states, characterized by plantation settings inhabited by gangs of enslaved people mistreated by lazy slave masters. Slavery was, in fact, practiced in all 13 American colonies. Although Massachusetts is often linked with the abolitionist movement, within 10 years of its establishment in 1630, the colonial and later state capital was a bustling slaving port, with slaves coming in to work or be sold. 

Slavery seemed to be quite different in New England. Historians differentiate between a “slave society,” or a culture in which enslaved people were not the main economic engine, and a “society with slaves,” or a culture in which enslaved people were not the primary economic engine.

Slavery was introduced to the New England colonies of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. New England had 15,000 enslaved persons at the start of the American Revolutionary War. The Massachusetts colony was home to a third of the population. Only 10% of the colonists in the area had more than four slaves, and 35% only had one. In a rural or urban home, women made between 30 to 40% of the entire enslaved population in New England, usually sharing quarters with one or two other female slaves or even White indentured servants. That wording implies a better way of life in comparison to circumstances in the South, yet slaves’ average life span—40 years—fell well short of White colonists’ average of 70 years. 

Enslaved people in New England faced unique living circumstances on both sides of the Atlantic. Slaves had greater access to White discourse and debate, but there was no feeling of Black community. The slaves responded enthusiastically to the heated, sometimes open-air discussions about liberty and equality that took place after 1770. As Enlightenment ideas gained traction and societal acceptability of slavery waned, owners throughout the area began to manumit—or free—bondsmen and -women at a faster pace. Freedom flowed around the slaves during these turbulent years, and it looked like them, too. 

In other respects, the New England colonies provided a unique setting for enslaved people. New Englanders saw slaves as more than property; they saw them as people, according to the region’s laws, which reflected a strong religious influence. Some colonies began to see only Africans as suitable for slavery, even to the point of legislating it. Natives captured in battles and deemed too dangerous to stay in the colony were often sent to the West Indies to serve as slaves on sugar plantations early in the province’s existence. A person born to an Indian or a White parent was not deemed black and therefore could not be enslaved. These colonial laws provided legal pathways to liberty. Before 1780, slaves in New England, 14 of whom were women, filed almost 50 cases. Women who sought legal recourse encountered even more obstacles than males. Enslaved women were subjected to the same coverture laws as applied to White women: spouses were deemed property of their husbands and could not litigate on their own behalf. 

Several enslaved female litigants’ tales have been documented by historians. A court in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, proclaimed Elisha Webb free in 1741. Webb, who was born in Virginia to a White mother and an enslaved Black father, was freed at birth due to her mother’s ethnicity. When such youngsters reached puberty, Virginia usually indentured them for 8 years. Webb’s time was passed to a Portsmouth sea captain who ventured to sell her as “Elishea [sic] a negro” after seven years. Webb, an educated woman, wrote to the Virginia judge who established her indenture. She was able to establish her status as a free woman by submitting documentary proof. Jenny Slew sued owner John Whipple twice in 1767, alleging Whipple had unjustly enslaved her since her mother was white. Slew won her claim and four pounds in compensation on her second attempt in Salem, Massachusetts.  

By 1774, when Juno Larcom arrived in Salem with a new suit, revolutionary rhetoric had become commonplace. Because her mother was an Indian, the long-enslaved Larcom proclaimed herself unmarried in order to have standing to argue that she had been enslaved unlawfully. 

The selling of two of Larcom’s children by a cash-strapped owner prompted her to pursue legal action. “Judge Ye Weather or Noe I hadent ort to be put at Liberty,” Larcom informed the court during his trial. When her owner died, the lawsuit was still ongoing, and Larcom boldly demanded her independence. The owner’s widow relented and released Larcom and her children, even providing them with a modest home on her land. 

Despite the importance of the Webb and Larcom trials, the phrase of equality does not emerge in the judicial record until Mum Bett’s action in 1780. She was born in 1744 and was known as Bet or Bett. Her exact birth date is unknown. Pieter Hogeboom, the head of a rich Dutch family living in Claverack, New York, on the colony’s eastern border with Massachusetts, had her parents and their descendants. 

After Hannah Hogeboom’s marriage to John Ashley, Bett was moved 25 miles east to the Ashley house in Sheffield, Massachusetts, which is now a historic monument. Bett became one of five slaves held by John Ashley, one of the area’s biggest slaveholders. She never learned to read as a child in the Ashley household, and her life is told via historical documents and personal letters of White bosses. She had a daughter named “Little Bett” or “Betsy” at some time. The father’s name and location, as well as the couple’s marital status, are all disputed. 

John Ashley’s Sheffield house was a hotbed of pre-revolutionary dissent. During the French and Indian War, Ashley, a powerful lawyer and local judge, led a local militia. In 1773, he entertained a party of rebels who sent the British monarchy an early appeal. “Mankind in a condition of nature is equal, free, and independent of each other, and has a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their life, their liberty, and their property,” the Sheffield Resolves declared. Bett, despite her illiteracy, could not help but be enthralled by the terms “equal,” “free,” “independent,” and “liberty.” 

Bett is described in a later sympathetic narrative as suffering repeated assault by Hannah Ashley while maintaining her strength of will. Bett sustained a bone-deep cut in one arm when she intervened to stop her mistress from hitting Bett’s kid with a hot shovel. Bett is quoted in the report as stating, “I had a terrible arm all winter, but Madam had the worst of it.” “I never concealed the wound, and when people asked me, ‘Betty, what ails your arm?’ before Madam, all I replied was, ‘ask Missis!’” 

Mum Bett’s chance to live a free life came during the Revolutionary War. She was in her late forties in 1780. Because illiteracy was prevalent across the colonies, officials often read crucial papers aloud for everyone to hear. Bett and the new Massachusetts state constitution were in this situation. “All men are born free and equal, and they have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights,” she heard, “among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; the right of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in short, the right of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.” In June 1780, Massachusetts voters adopted this declaration, which was mostly written by John Adams and inspired by the Declaration of Independence. Bett may have heard a reading before or after voter approval, but it’s unknown. 

Bett contacted Theodore Sedgwick, a neighbor, shortly after. Sedgwick was a young lawyer, an early abolitionist, and a delegate to the Second Continental Congress when the Sheffield Resolves were drafted. Catherine, his daughter, subsequently drew the scene between her father and her mother, Bett. “’Sir,’ [Bett] replied, ‘I heard that document read yesterday that stated all men are created equal, and that every man has a right to freedom.’ ‘I’m not a stupid creature; why won’t the law grant me my liberty?’ 

The Enslaved Woman who Sued for Freedom in 1780—and Won Sedgwicks, Theodore and Catherine (VTR/Alamy Stock Photo; Art Collection 3/ Alamy Stock Photo; VTR/Alamy Stock Photo)

Bett’s case was accepted by Sedgwick. Soon after, her case was merged with a freedom suit filed by another enslaved individual owned by Ashley, Brom. Bett’s action, Sedgwick understood, might be used to determine whether slavery was lawful under the new state constitution. Another patriot and respected legal instructor, Tapping Reeve of Litchfield, Connecticut, joined the lawsuit. According to some accounts, Sedgwick and Reeve were searching for a test case and selected the two defendants; nevertheless, it’s unclear why just two or these two individuals would be the plaintiffs.

Sedgwick and Reeve started by submitting a writ of replevin, which is a judicial proceeding that demands the restoration of illegitimately held property. Bett and Brom, Ashley replied, were his lawful property for the rest of their lives. The court scheduled a trial when Ashley failed to comply with two more writs. 

Brom and Bett v. Ashley was heard in the Berkshire County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in August 1781. Sedgwick and Reeve argued to a jury of free White males that the new state constitution’s wording essentially abolished slavery. Though these veniremen were hardly a jury of the plaintiffs’ peers in 1781, few of the jurors hearing the case owned slaves. The jury had ruled for Bett and Brom the following day, and they were now free persons. Bett and Brom were given a settlement of 30 shillings. Ashley was sentenced to pay a fee of six pounds to the court. Ashley filed an appeal, but abandoned it when a similar case was also ruled in favor of the slaves. 

When the state high court decided in Commonwealth v. Jennison on July 8, 1783, it effectively put an end to slavery in Massachusetts. The court said that “slavery is in my view as effectively abolished as it can be,” citing the new state constitution’s statement that “all men are born free and equal.”  

Mum Bett changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman and started to live a more independent life. She was given a paid job by John Ashley, but she chose to work for Theodore Sedgwick instead. Freeman earned a reputation as a nurse and midwife. Catherine Sedgwick, who despised her stepmother, began to refer to Elizabeth as “mother.” 

Mum Bett’s tale was first disclosed in Catherine Sedgwick’s nostalgic 1853 remembrance. Elizabeth enjoyed reminiscing about her fight for independence, according to Catherine. She recalled Elizabeth saying, “I would have been ready if I could have had one minute of freedom simply to say, “I am free.” “At the end of that minute, I would have been willing to die.”

Elizabeth Freeman worked for the Sedgwick family until 1808, when she bought and moved into her own home on Cherry Hill Road. She went on to work as a midwife. Susan Sedgwick created a miniature of Freeman in 1811, which is the sole known depiction of her. The picture depicts a woman who is a paragon of respectability, dressed in a blue dress and a white neckcloth, as was the vogue at the time. Bett is wearing a gold necklace that Catherine gave her. 

The Enslaved Woman who Sued for Freedom in 1780—and Won Bett lived from the age of seven among enslaved persons held by rebel John Ashley at Ashley House in Sheffield, Massachusetts. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Elizabeth Freeman died on December 28, 1829, at the age of 85. Her assets were divided among her daughter, grandkids, and great-grandchildren in a comprehensive will. Five dresses, one of which was made of black silk; “a big home made birds eye petticoat” and a black velvet cap; furniture; three “green bordered pie plates;” and her gold necklace and earrings were among the items. Stockbridge Cemetery in Stockbridge, Massachusetts is where she is buried. “She could not read nor write yet in her own domain she had no superior nor equal,” Catherine Sedgwick wrote on Mum Bett’s tombstone.

 

The original version of this article appeared in the August 2022 edition of American History. To subscribe, go to this link.

 

In 1780, Dorcas Mitchell—a 25 year old African-American woman—filed a lawsuit to free herself from the slavery she had been forced into for the past 12 years. Not only did she successfully win her case, but she also went on to become one of the first African-American women to vote in the United States. The trial—which lasted for two weeks—was covered by the press, which brought it to the attention of larger audiences.. Read more about elizabeth freeman codebreaker and let us know what you think.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was the first woman to free slaves?

Harriet Tubman

What was the outcome of Elizabeth Freemans Court set free?

Elizabeth Freemans Court was found not guilty of all charges.

Who said I was an enslaved African American who sued for my freedom?

I did not say that.

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