Replevin of Elizabeth Freeman (aka Mum Bett)
Elizabeth Freeman helped to end slavery in Massachusetts through a lawsuit she filed in 1781 arguing that the practice was inconsistent with the state’s new constitution, which clearly stated that “all men are born free and equal.” In this poem, Jeffers imagines Freeman, also known as Mum Bett, speaking to the profound injustice of being forced to seek her freedom in a system where only white men could argue her case and living in a world in which a Black person’s word was rarely taken as truth on its own terms. The poem is filmed a few steps from the balcony at the Old State House, which is where the Declaration of Independence was first read to the public in Massachusetts.
Born a slave in upstate New York sometime around the year 1742 and “given” to the Ashley household in Sheffield, Massachusetts, Elizabeth Freeman served the Ashleys until 1781. “Mum Bett” (also spelled “Mumbet”), as she was known while enslaved, was purportedly compelled to sue for her freedom for two reasons. First, Elizabeth had suffered bodily injury at the hands of Annetje Ashley, the mistress of the household. Particularly, the infamous story tells of Ashley attempting to strike Elizabeth’s sister or child, and Elizabeth intervening and taking the blow. The second possible reason for her suit, reported by later biographer Catherine Maria Sedgewick, was Freeman’s realization that she had legal grounds to claim her freedom after hearing the language of liberty contained in both the Declaration of Independence and the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Working with Stockbridge attorney Thomas Sedgewick, Elizabeth and Brom, an enslaved man, brought suit for their freedom. Elizabeth and Brom were successful, winning both freedom and a sum of money to cover trial costs.
Elizabeth Freeman would spend the next 48 years of her life as a paid servant in the Sedgewick household. Freeman died as a free, property-owning, woman. Her gravestone, located within the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge, reads: “ELIZABETH FREEMAN, known by the name of MUMBET died Dec. 28 1829. Her supposed age was 85 years...She never violated a trust, nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper…”
Links to documents and artifacts relating to the moment and events referenced in the poem.
The Massachusetts Court System, Writ of Replevin and Verdict from Bett and Brom vs. Ashley, dated 1781 and 1792 respectively
Massachusetts Historical Society, Portrait of Elizabeth Freeman, dated 1811
In Phillis’s Words
Excerpts of Phillis Wheatley Peters’s writings that resonate thematically with Jeffers’s poems.
“...Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case.
And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway...”
Links to additional resources.
- Mother of Freedom: Mum Bett and the Roots of Abolition by Ben Z. Rose
- Love of Freedom: Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England by Catherine Adams and Elizabeth H. Pleck