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Freeman, Elizabeth (Mum Bett, Mumbet)

Freeman, Elizabeth (Mum Bett, Mumbet)

c. 1744
December 28, 1829

As plaintiff in a law suit, Mum Bett, a slave, joined a black laborer named Bront in suing for their freedom in 1781. After winning that case, she adopted the name Elizabeth Freeman. The victory was a significant step in the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, although the final decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court that the new state constitution prohibited slavery came in another case.

Freeman was born a slave in New York State and in 1758 seems to have passed into the possession of John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, a judge in the Court of Common Pleas from 1761 to 1781. Freeman never learned to read or write, but she heard discussions of the Bill of Rights and the Massachusetts constitution, which was adopted in 1780. She considered that the language about all people being created free and equal might well apply to her.

In 1780 Mrs. Ashley became angry and struck at Freeman's sister with a heated shovel; Freeman was burned on the arm when she intervened. Leaving the house, she sued for her freedom in a case heard on August 21, 1781. She won. Her lawyer was Theodore Sedgwick, father of Theodore Sedgwick Jr., a noted abolitionist. Freeman became a servant in the Sedgwick family and followed them to Stockbridge in 1785. When Freeman retired, she had accumulated enough money to buy a small house. She mentions great-grandchildren in the will she signed with a cross on October 18, 1829. She was buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge Cemetery.

See also Free Blacks, 16191860; Slavery and the Constitution


Dermus, Betty. "Some of Us Are Brave." Essence 28, no. 10 (1998): 84.

Johns, Robert L. "Elizabeth Freeman, 'Mum Bett,' 'Mumbet.'" In Notable Black American Women, edited by Jessie Carney Smith. Detroit: Gale, 1992.

Logan, Rayford W. "Elizabeth [Mumbet, Mum Bett] Freeman." In Dictionary of American Negro Biography, edited by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.

robert l. johns (2001)
Updated bibliography

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