Brom and Bett vs. Ashley: the first African American slaves to be freed under the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, and to be paid for their work.
In 1773, slaves in Boston organized a petition against slavery. It was initially turned down, but seven years later the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was the first state in the Union to complete its constitution: “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.” —Massachusetts Constitution, Article 1.
Mum Bett (later called Elizabeth Freeman) was born into slavery about 1742 at the farm of Pieter Hogeboom, in Claverack, New York, and became a hero for African Americans in her fight for freedom. Because she was illiterate and there is no written record of her life, and there are discrepancies in the accounts of her life. Her history has been woven together through people who had written down life stories she had told them, from others who had heard her story, and from historical records.
The first discrepancy in the story of Mum Bett is that she remained a slave of Hogeboom until she was in her early teens. This story tells that Hogeboom then gifted her to his daughter, Hannah (who was raised in the strict Dutch culture of the New York colony), when Hannah married John Ashley. It is said that Bett remained their house slave until 1781.
Another account says that Bett and her sister were bought by Colonel John Ashley when she was only six months old, and Bett served his household until she was nearly 40.
While with the Ashleys, Bett was married and had a daughter whom she named Betsy. Bett’s husband, whose name was not passed down in the stories, went off to fight in the Revolutionary War and never returned home.
Accounts of whether Betsy was the daughter of Mum Bett or her younger sister are in conflict, but other than that, the gist of the story remains pretty much the same. Later in life, Bett became known as Mum Bett, and her daughter was called “Little Bett” or Lizzie.
“Ashley, by all historical accounts, had an even temper; his wife, however, did not.” It was said that Bett “exhibited a strong spirit and sense of self” and it was a good thing she did because in 1780 she “came into conflict” with her owner. Mrs. Ashley lost her temper and was about to hit Bett’s daughter with a “fiery” hot kitchen shovel when Bett fended off the blow by blocking it with her arm. Another version of the story says it was Bett’s younger sister that Hannah Ashley was going to hit. Either way, Bett had a deep wound that she left uncovered so that guests to the house would see it and ask where it came from to which Bett would say “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!’ (Catharine Maria Sedgwick).” Bett was a smart woman to use this as proof of her abuse, and she carried this scar for the rest of her life.
The third discrepancy in the story occurs here with some saying it was her arm that was scarred from the wound, and others saying that she had been hit in the face with the shovel (with the quote from Catharine, I lean toward the version about her arm).
A fourth difference in the stories is the detail of whether Bett stormed out of the house immediately after being hit refusing to return, or if she actually stayed and allowed visitors to see her wounded arm, as Catharine quoted.
Not only was John Ashley a wealthy landowner claiming to have the largest farm in town, which was said to be built “in large measure on the backs of the small group of slaves he owned,” but he was also a businessman, a leader in the community, and a Yale-educated lawyer. He was a strong supporter of the American Revolution, and “as the American colonies staked out their independence, the abolitionist movement began to gain some headwind in Massachusetts.”
Ashley’s house was the site of many political discussions and Bett, being a house slave, listened to these conversations as she served her “masters” and their wealthy dinner guests. After the Revolutionary War, she overheard them talking about the Bill of Rights and the new constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Bett realized that this freedom they talked about must also apply to her, and if all people were born free and equal, then she should be released from her slavery.
Regardless of the timing of her exodus from the Ashley residence, she did eventually leave and sued for her freedom. Ashley went to the law to force Bett’s return to his farm but when he did this, she went to Theodore Sedgwick and asked him to help sue for her freedom. Sedgwick was a lawyer from Stockbridge and a supporter of abolition, also serving as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court from 1802 – 1813. When he agreed to represent Bett, another Ashely slave by the name of Brom joined the fight and sued for his freedom along with Bett.
Sedgwick argued his case Brom & Bett v.Ashley before a county court and the jury ruled in his favor, further ordering Ashley to pay court fees along with paying Bett and Brom thirty shillings each. This made Bett and Brom the first African American slaves to be freed under the 1780 Massachusetts constitution, not to mention being the first former slaves to be paid for their work. Since they were proven not to be Ashley’s property, the writ of replevin (an action for the recovery of property) filed in the Berkshire Court of Common Pleas, was denied and Bett and Brom were released to the sheriff. Theodore Sedgwick later became a United States Senator and eventually, a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.
This case was unique because there was no claim of Ashley having violated any specific laws (as in other prior suits for freedom) and because it was the first direct challenge to the existence of slavery in Massachusetts.
Although Ashley asked her to return to his house and work for wages, Bett chose to work instead in the Sedgwick home where she became a beloved servant and nanny for the family until 1808. The Sedgwick children called her “Mum Bett,” and one of the children was Catharine Sedgwick who grew up to write an account of her governess’ life and become a well-known author.
After the ruling that gave her freedom, Bett legally took the name Elizabeth Freeman, although most people continued to call her by her old name. Over time Freeman became widely recognized and in demand for her skills as a healer, midwife and nurse.
20 years later, after the last of the Sedgwick children were grown, Elizabeth Freeman had saved enough money to buy a house and a plot of land where she lived with her daughter, and eventually also with her grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
In the year 1829, Mum Bett died. She was in her mid-80s when she passed, and was buried in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. She is the only non-family member buried in the Sedgwick family plot, not to mention in the innermost circle of the family plot known as the “Sedgwick Pie.” Her tombstone can still be seen in the old burial ground and reads: “She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years. She could neither read nor write yet in her own sphere she had no superior or equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper, and the tenderest friend. Good mother, farewell.”
Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett) was the African American woman whose legal suit for freedom helped bring about the end of slavery in Massachusetts.
“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.”
One of Mum Bett’s great-grandchildren is said to have been W.E.B. DuBois. A well-known historian who was born nearly 40 years after Freeman’s death in the town where her historic suit for freedom was argued (Great Barrington, Massachusetts), DuBois claimed that his great-grandfather was “Jack” Burghardt, and the husband of Elizabeth Freeman. This seems to be the final discrepancy in the story of her life and legacy. Freeman was 20 years older than Burghardt (which does not necessarily negate the possibility of their marriage), but like the name of her first husband, there is no record of such a marriage. Researchers have evidence that supports Burghardt being the second husband of Freeman’s daughter, Betsy Humphrey. Burghardt’s first wife died around 1810 and Humphrey’s first husband, Jonah, left the area around 1811. This would support Freeman being Du Bois’s step-great-great-grandmother.
There is a library that carries the name of W.E.B. DuBois on the campus of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst campus. Built in 1974 by Edward Durrell Stone, the library houses the memoirs and papers of the distinguished African-American scholar, writer, and activist. The library is the second tallest library in the world, and the tallest university library in the world. The library is 28 stories and 296 feet tall.
Apparently discrepancies in life stories follow this family, because as alumni of UMass, I have heard myths about the library (now proven false). Myth number one says that when the library was built, the added weight of books was not taken into account and the building began sinking about ¼ inch into the ground each year. The myth continues that the top floors have been vacant of books as a result, and a protective fence has been built around the base of the library to keep students from getting too close. There is a fence around the base, but apparently there are other reasons for its existence. The fence was said to keep students from getting too close to the base of the building and protect them from potential falling bricks from the sides of the building. Falling bricks was said to be a result of the building listing from the earlier weight of the books on the upper floors. All of these “stories” have been proven as false myths, but are still told around campus.