Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, December 28, 2015

Mumbet Becomes Elizabeth Freeman

Elizabeth Freeman, formerly "Mumbet" (died 28 December 1829)


Elizabeth Freeman, "Mumbet"
miniature portrait by Susan Ridley Sedgwick,
c. 1812
(Susan Ridley married
Theodore Sedgwick Jr.)
Her date of birth was not recorded, nor was her date of purchase--but the enslaved "Mumbet," or Bett, and her younger sister, Lizzy, were the property of Pieter Hoogeboom, a Dutch merchant and landowner in Claverack, New York. According to the terms of his will
I bequeath to all my children . . . all my negroes and negresses, big and little, young and old, and all my horses and cattle and furthermore all my movable goods from the largest to the smallest that may be found after my death, to each his just tenth part. . . .  
Hoogeboom died in 1758, and as part of her "tenth," Annatie (anglicized as Hannah) and her husband John Ashley, living in Sheffield, Massachusetts, received Mumbet and Lizzy. (There is some dispute among historians as to whether Hannah and John Ashley received the girls as a sort of wedding gift or after Hoogeboom's death. I've linked you here to two representative accounts. The truth of the matter is that documentary evidence is scarce, but since we can read Hoogeboom's will, I've gone with that version.) 

Life for Mumbet and her sister in the Ashley household was not easy. As her story is related by Catharine Maria Sedgwick in her "Slavery in New England" (published in a miscellany in London in 1853), Mumbet's "master" was a kind and gentle man, but his wife, Hannah, was a holy terror. 

According to Sedgwick's account, "soon after the close of the Revolutionary War," Mumbet "chanced" to hear a reading of the Declaration of Independence. The next day she went to the office of Theodore Sedgwick, a lawyer who had been a delegate to the Continental Congress and who had fought in the Continental army during the Revolutionary War. "Sir," she reportedly said to him, "I heard that paper read yesterday, that says, all men are created equal, and that every man has a right to freedom. I'm not a dumb critter; won't the law give me my freedom?" (Lawyer Sedgwick's daughter was the Catharine Maria Sedgwick who told Mumbet's story in "Slavery in New England.")

Sedgwick and his partner Tapping Reeve took the case of Mumbet and another of Ashley's slaves, Brom. The case of Brom and Bett v. Ashley was heard in August 1781 before Court of Common Pleas. The lawyers argued that slavery was illegal under the Massachusetts Constitution, newly ratified, which stated: "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."

The jury ruled in Mumbet and Brom's favor. The two were free. 

Taking the name Elizabeth Freeman, the newly freed Freeman went to work in the household of Sedgwick. Among her tasks, she cared for Catharine, who would later tell her story.

When she died in 1829, Elizabeth Freeman was buried in the Sedgwick family plot. The inscription on her gravestone was written by Charles Sedgwick, Theodore Sedgwick's son (and Catharine's brother):

ELIZABETH FREEMAN
known by the name of
MUMBET
Died Dec. 28, 1829
Her supposed age was 85 Years She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years. She could neither read nor write, yet in her own sphere she had no superior nor 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.
There is a wealth of information available at the Mumbet website, including original court documents, but I love this opener:
Acknowledged by so few . . .
Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman is not mentioned in the publication Notable American Women (1971), a three volume biographical dictionary which is the first full-scale scholarly work of its kind. Mumbet is not mentioned in Merriam Webster's Biographical Dictionary. She is not mentioned in the National Women's Hall of Fame.
I've linked you above not only to this website but also to information at the Massachusetts Trustees of Reservations website. There is also good information at the Massachusetts Historical Society, which you can access by clicking here.

There are a number of "biographies" available, but they all seem to be children's books.