Elizabeth Freeman’s name and story are not widely known these days, but she played an essential part in the early history of our country. Born a slave, Freeman would go on to win her freedom, the first woman to do so under the Massachusetts state constitution.
Freeman, then named simply Bett, was born into slavery in Claverack, New York, around the year 1742. She was given as a wedding gift to John and Hannah Ashley, of Sheffield, Mass. John Ashley was a supporter of the American Revolution and was head of the committee that wrote the 1773 Sheffield Resolves, a precursor to the Declaration of Independence. He also owned five slaves.
When the new Massachusetts Constitution was read aloud in Sheffield, Bett was on hand to hear it. After hearing that “all men are born free and equal,” she and another of the Ashleys’ slaves, Brom, sought the help of Theodor Sedgwick, a local abolition-minded lawyer. In Brom and Bett v. Ashley, they won their freedom and effectively abolished slavery in Massachusetts.
Thereafter known as Elizabeth Freeman, or affectionately as Mum Bett, the former slave went to work for Sedgwick, and also made a name for herself in the community as a midwife, herbal healer, and nurse. When she died in 1829, she was buried in the Sedgwick family plot.
To learn more about Freeman, her entry on Wikipedia is a good starting point. For those within striking distance of the Berkshires who would like to take a field trip, the Ashley House and the Sedgwick plot in Stockbridge Cemetery are open to the public.