In a time when slavery was an accepted practice, Elizabeth "Mum Bett" Freeman (1742-1829) challenged this notion, filing a lawsuit against her then-enslaver, Colonel John Ashley. Elizabeth's "freedom case" paved the way for future legal challenges to the practice of slavery, playing a crucial part in securing freedom for all those enslaved in Massachusetts and beyond.
Born into slavery simply as "Elizabeth," her given name was shortened to "Bett" by her enslavers. At six months old, she was purchased by Colonel Ashley, a Berkshire Court of Common Pleas judge from his father-in-law. There, Elizabeth was subject to significant abuse, including being hit by a coal shovel, which left her with a permanent physical scar.
While performing her duties, she often overheard conversations concerning the uprisings of other enslaved individuals and the American Revolution. These discussions sparked in her a belief that freedom was a right all should enjoy, even enslaved Black people.
During this time, Elizabeth became acquainted with Theodore Sedgewick, an attorney. This acquaintance would prove fortuitous when, in 1780, Massachusetts presented its state constitution. This constitution contained an article that read, "All men are born free and equal.” Believing this article should apply to all, Elizabeth worked with Sedgewick to file a legal challenge to slavery. She was joined in this case by an enslaved man, known only as Brom, as Sedgewick and his colleagues worried the case would be taken less seriously if the only plaintiff was a woman.
The courts ruled in Elizabeth's favor, a judgment later appealed by Ashley but eventually dropped after two other trials concluded in a similar verdict.
After securing her freedom, Elizabeth adopted the last name Freeman, in recognition of the freedom she had secured. She spent her remaining years of life working as a nurse and midwife. She died in 1829 in Massachusetts, a state she had played a role in liberating.