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Mum Bett:first enslaved African American to file and win a freedom suit in Massachusetts

This Week’s Story relives American history and the Bible through brief inspiring stories presented on mp3 audio recordings and text for reading.

Mum Bett Sues for Freedom

“Thief!” Mrs. Ashley screamed and grabbed a red-hot coal shovel from the baking oven. She raised it above her head, ready to smash Lizzie with it. Instantly Bett put her arm above her head and dove between her sister Lizzie and Mrs. Ashley.

The shovel hit Bett’s arm and burned deep into it. Pain rocketed throughout her body. Mrs. Ashley staggered away. Lizzie tried to clean the wound and wrap it. Immediately Bett thought: This is wrong. I will not be treated like this again.

Soon she left the Ashley house. For thirty-four years she had been the slave of Colonel Ashley and his crazed vindictive wife. The Colonel was an attorney and judge, respected and influential in his community of Sheffield, Massachusetts.

Bett went to the home of Theodore Sedgwick. He was a friend of Colonel Ashley. Sedgwick was thirty-four and already an experienced successful lawyer. Bett knew he had worked on the constitution for the state of Massachusetts, and believed people have a right to liberty. Would he believe that she had such a right?

At his home she explained, “Sir, I have come to see if I can claim my liberty under the law.”

Sedgwick was not prepared for her request. How could a female slave and an African-American living in 1781 expect to have her right to be free recognized in court? He asked, “Where did you get such an idea?”

“Mr. Sedgwick, I have listened to men in the Ashley’s home discuss the rights of human beings. In 1773 before the war, when men in our town drafted the Sheffield Declaration, they met where I heard the words of the Declaration. I have repeated words I heard read from it. ‘Resolved, that mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other…. Resolved, that the great end of political society is to secure in a more effectual manner those rights and privileges wherewith God and nature have made us free.’

“Often during the Revolutionary War I heard that all human beings are born free and equal. I want to be one of those free and equal people. I am not an animal. I am a citizen of this country. I believe that the law should give me my freedom.”

Sedgwick was fascinated. I think I know the legal basis for Mum Bett to be granted her freedom. The Bill of Rights in the Constitution of Massachusetts affirms that all people are born free and equal. If all people living in Massachusetts are under the laws of its constitution, then Mum Bett should be protected by it.

In May of 1781 Bett’s case began in court. She and a male slave were represented by two lawyers, Sedgwick and Reeve. The lawyers petitioned the court for an order requiring the return of illegally possessed personal property. That property was Mum Bett and Brum. Their owners were asked to surrender their claims of ownership.

This is Barbara Steiner sharing a case that is rarely discussed, but certainly was significant. Next week we can follow Mum Bett through her case and following years.

The website thisweeksstory.com will acquaint you with many more classic stories.

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