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Mum Betts (Elizabeth Freeman) was the first slave to successfully sue for her freedom, encouraging Massachusetts to abolish slavery.
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Mum Betts was born a slave circa 1742, spending her young adult years in the household of John Ashley in Massachusetts. When Ashley's wife attacked her, Betts appealed to a local abolitionist, who brought her case to the courts. Betts was granted her freedom and 30 shillings in damages in 1781, with the case Brom and Betts v. Ashley. Betts became a paid servant and raised a family on her wages.
Abolitionist, former slave. Born sometime around 1742, Mum Bett, or Mumbet as she was referred to affectionately, proved to be a driving force in ending the slave trade in the new Commonwealth of Massachusetts when she successfully sued for freedom in 1781, becoming the first African-American woman to win her way out of slavery.
Like so many thousands of others born into slavery, little is known about Mum Bett's early history, such as when or where she was born. What is clear is that in 1746 she became the property of wealthy Sheffield, Massachusetts, resident John Ashley and his wife, Hannah. Bett and a younger woman, who may have been Bett's sister Lizzie, had previously been the property of Hannah's family. When she married John Ashley, it seems, Mum Bett and Lizzie were given to the couple.
Ashley, a strong supporter of the American Revolution, claimed to have the largest farm in town, and his wealth was built in large measure on the backs of the small group of slaves he owned. Around him, though, the world was changing. As the American colonies staked out their independence, the abolitionist movement began to gain some headwind in Massachusetts. Even as early as 1700, the Puritan judge Samuel Seawall, who was instrumental in prosecuting the Salem Witch Trials, wrote a piece called The Selling of Joseph that called into question the practice of owning other human beings.
In 1773, Boston blacks organized a petition against slavery. It was turned down, but just seven years later the Commonwealth of Massachusetts completed its constitution, the first state in the Union to do so. In it was the guarantee that "all men are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights."
Ashley, by all historical accounts, had an even temper. His wife, however, did not. As the story goes, Hannah became quite angry one day with Lizzie, and went to attack her with a fiery, hot kitchen shovel. But in an effort to save her sister, Mum Bett stepped in front of Lizzie and weathered the blow herself.
The attack left a permanent scar on Mum Bett's face. More importantly, though, it propelled her to leave the Ashley home and seek the assistance of Theodore Sedgwick, an abolitionist, attorney, and future U.S. Senator, who lived in the nearby town of Stockbridge.
Betts hadn't just fled out of fear, though. Through all the talk she'd heard around the Ashley home about the rights of the Colonies, Bett had come to believe she'd been guaranteed some rights of her own. To her ears, the new Massachusetts Constitution extended its protection to all people in the Commonwealth, even slaves.
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