This Week's Story

Mum Bett becomes the first slave in Massachusetts to be declared free according to the state constitution.

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: There's no exchange for human dignity. part two

Mum Bett did what no woman had done previously in Massachusetts! In 1781 she, a female slave who could not read or write, went to court and sued her slave owner for her freedom. Her day in court was two hundred and thirty-eight years ago from the present year 2019. Massachusetts was still a colony.

No one forced Bett into court. She had an inner sense of right and wrong, a hunger for human dignity; and she was eagerly learning from freedom-struggles swirling around her.

When she went to court the 13 Colonies were near the end of a war for freedom from Britain. Her husband had fought in the Revolutionary War and been killed. For eight years she had been over-hearing men talk as they gathered in her master’s home. They discussed and acted against wrongs they experienced from Britain’s tyranny. Bett snatched opportunities to hear words about humans having rights from nature and God to be free.

She believed that the new constitution of Massachusetts supported her claim to freedom. It read, “All men are born free and equal….”

Years after her day in court, she said, “Anytime, anytime 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 earth a free woman — I would.”

No one offered freedom to Mum Bett. Instead, her sister was caught scraping a pan for leftover bits of wheat cake to satisfy her hungry stomach. That was the trigger day, the day Mum Bett took a terrible blow to protect her sister from the vile wife of their slaveowner Colonel Ashley.

Mum Bett left her master’s house. When her owner appealed to the law for her return, she appealed to lawyer Theodore Sedgewick to help her sue for her freedom. He had been looking for a case to make an attack against slavery and took her case. A man named Brom, a slave, joined the suit against Ashley.

The county court hearing the case ruled in favor of Bett and Brom, and stipulated that Colonel Ashley should pay the cost of the lawsuit and damages to Bett and Brom. They were the first slaves to be declared free under the Massachusetts constitution.

The decision was affirmed by the state courts and led to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts. In 1790, when the first U.S. Census was taken, Massachusetts was the only state in the nation to have no slaves!

Surprisingly, after the court case, Colonel Ashley asked Mum Bett to work for him for wages. Instead she worked for her former lawyer, helped him raise his ten children, mothered her own daughter, and cared for Sedgewick’s wife who had depression.

She changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman, saved money and bought her own home. People sought her services as a nurse, midwife, and herbalist. In her mid-eighties she died, a free woman with dignity.

This is Barbara Steiner honored to present Mum Bett.

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