Habari Gani is Swahili for: “What’s the news?”
The NEWS for you is: EMPOWERMENT.
Here’s your EMPOWERMENT LESSON for the week of February 4:
This Week’s Black History Icon: Elizabeth Freeman, or “Mum Bett” the FIRST African American woman freed from slavery
Article 1 of the Massachusetts State Constitution, adopted in 1780, reads:
“All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”
She was initially called “Mum Bett”; by the time of her death, however, Mum Bett had transformed into Elizabeth Freeman, the name she had given herself after becoming the first Black enslaved woman freed in the United States.
Mum Bett was born a slave in 1742; she was purchased at the tender age of six months by Pieter Hoogeboom. Upon Pieter’s death, Mum Bett, along with her little sister, Lizzy, was “bequeathed” to Pieter’s daughter, Hannah, and her husband, John Ashley.
The trouble began when Hannah Ashley (a dour tyrant known for her explosive temper), in a fit of rage, attempted to hit Mum’s sister, Lizzy, with a heated shovel. Wanting to protect her baby sister, Mum stepped in between the two of them, as Hannah swung the potentially deadly weapon. Mum suffered a blow to the face that left her with a permanent scar.
It was not long after this incident that Mum Bett left the Ashley household, refusing to return.
John Ashley pleaded with the authorities for Mum’s forceful return, yet to no avail. Realizing that there was no way she could – or would – ever return to a life of cruelty and forced servitude, Bett realized that if she didn’t fight for her freedom while she had the chance, she would forever remain a slave.
Having overheard various conversations white male slave owners held throughout the years on the subject of colonial rights, Bett became convinced those rights applied to her, as well. Armed with this conviction, Mum sought the counsel of a young abolitionist lawyer named Theodore Sedgewick. Sedgewick (who would later go on to become a U.S. Senator) had already agreed to take on the case of another one of Ashley’s slaves, simply named “Brom”. The case later became known as Brom and Bett vs. Ashley.
Using the very language in the Massachusetts State Constitution, Sedgwick argued before the County Court Of Common Pleas that “all men are born free and equal” also applied to those born into captivity.
When the jury ruled in her favor, Mum Bett became the first African-American woman in the country to be freed from slavery.
However, the jury didn’t stop there; having found that the Ashleys illegally detained Brom and Bett, the jury awarded them damages of 30 shillings. In addition, they awarded Mum Bett compensation (reparations) retroactive from the age of 21, onward.
Though defeated, John Ashley still attempted to get Mum Bett back into his household, now offering her payment for the labors she had been forced to perform for free; she refused.
Instead, Mum Bett, having now changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman, went to work in the Sedgewick household, where she remained for a number of years.
Freeman later became a midwife and nurse, gaining wide recognition for her skills. She would eventually marry, and give birth to a daughter.
The two worked, side-by-side.
After having endured the worst and most brutal of human trials, Elizabeth Freeman was laid to rest in the Sedgwick Family plot – an honor for someone who was not born or married into the family.
The Sedgwick family further honored her by erecting an elaborate headstone that read:
“She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years. She could neither read nor write yet in her own sphere had no superior or equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper, and the tenderest friend. Good mother, Farewell.”
Evidence of Elizabeth’s legacy is deeply embedded in the Civil Rights Movement. Her great-grandson is no other than William Edgar Burghardt (W.E.B.) DuBois, the first Black male to have earned a PhD from Harvard University, and co-founder of the Niagara Movement that later gave rise to the NAACP. Through generational transference, her spirit and energy gave birth to generations of leaders, who – to this day – fight for justice and Empowerment on behalf of all African Americans.
Well done, Sister…VERY well done…