Friday, March 31, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Years before the ratification of the Constitution, she sued for her freedom and won

A town in the Berkshires celebrated the little-known legacy of Elizabeth Freeman, an enslaved woman who was one of the first to successfully sue for her freedom, with a statute unveiled Sunday.

SHEFFIELD, Mass. (CN) — It has been 240 years since a jury determined that Elizabeth Freeman was the property of no one and awarded her damages from her enslaver.

Decades before the Emancipation Proclamation, years before the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Freeman’s suit argued the newly adopted Massachusetts Constitution had obliterated the institution in the commonwealth.

Accounts of her life suggest Freeman, illiterate and enslaved by a local judge named John Ashley, asked attorney Theodore Sedgwick to represent her after she had heard discussions about the freedoms described in the Declaration of Independence and the commonwealth’s new constitution.

On Sunday, a couple hundred people, some of them huddled under shade trees, watched as a dark blue cloth, previously secured with a red, black and green ribbon, slipped from the larger-than-life statue of Elizabeth Freeman, bronze glinting in the sun, that now stands in Sheffield’s town square.

Michelle and Barack Obama and the actress Meryl Streep — who once described Freeman as more important than Davy Crockett — wrote letters of congratulations. Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said during the unveiling ceremony that it was good to be reminded that good things happen when the country’s institutions recognize the nation’s ideals.

“None of our ideals, none of them mean a thing unless somebody somewhere stands up in some court or on some street and gives them meaning,” Patrick said. “One person deciding to make the enduring American promise her own is what gives it all meaning.”

William “Smitty” Pignatelli, a Democrat who represents a portion of the Berkshires in the Massachusetts Legislature, said he helped spearhead the effort to erect the statue of Freeman, who is sometimes called Mumbet, after he attended a statue dedication to Susan B. Anthony in Adams, a town in which the women’s rights activist lived six years.

“Something came over me that day that said, ‘look at the pride in this community. We need to do something for Mumbet,’” Pignatelli said.

Beyond the handwritten court documents of Freeman’s case, details of Freeman’s life are sparse.

In an article published in 1971 by the Berkshire County Historical Society, Arthur Zilversmit, a history professor at Lake Forest College before his death in 2005, said the accounts of Freeman, contained the “mythical qualities of genuine folk literature.”

Zilersmit said Freeman’s suit, while instrumental, was the first of several that helped end slavery in Massachusetts. Freeman had a co-plaintiff, an enslaved individual known to history merely as Brom. Around the same time, an enslaved individual in the eastern part of the state, Quock Walker sued for his freedom. Another individual enslaved by Ashley had also filed his own separate suit.

But it was Freeman’s case that was the most significant, Zilversmit supposed, because of the high-profile power-houses-for-their-day attorneys that lined up on either side of Freeman’s case. For instance, Tapping Reeve, who founded the nation’s first law school, helped represent Freeman.

Although Ashley appealed the decision, Zilversmit said he ultimately confessed judgment and dropped the appeal. After attaining her freedom, Freeman changed her name from Bett to “Elizabeth Freeman” and worked in the Sedgwick household as a paid servant.

Speaking at the unveiling, Theodore Sedgwick, the ambassador to the Slovak Republic during the Obama administration, said the statue was “deeply personal” for him: He was the great, great grandson of the Sedgwick who represented Freeman.

As a child, Sedgwick heard his family recount stories of Freeman, or Mumbet, as some of the Sedgwick children called her, passed down through the generations. But while she’s an iconic figure of the Berkshires, her story is an American story.

“Her story has been written by my family. We need to hear from other perspectives,” Sedgwick said.

Sari Edelstein, an English professor at University of Massachusetts Boston, said she learned about Freeman’s story while studying the works of novelist Catherine Sedgwick, the daughter of Freeman’s attorney, who had written an article titled “Slavery in New England” about Freeman in 1853, in the wake of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s runaway success with Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

According to Catherine Sedgwick’s account, Freeman was abused by the wife of her enslaver, who once hit Freeman’s arm with a shovel, leaving a wound.

It was Catherine Sedgwick who said Freeman would often say: “Any time 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.”

But yet, it’s an account filled with paradoxes, Edelstein said, because after Theodore Sedgwick represented Freeman, he helped co-author a fugitive slave law.

Catherine Sedgwick’s account, Edelstein said, described Freeman as a motherly figure and wrapped her story up in triumphalism. But yet, Freeman did not obtain the freedom to, say, vote.

“I think the statue is really trying to finally honor her as a hero, as a forerunner, as an important figure,” Edelstein said in an interview. “And I think that's amazing. But I would still say that it's difficult, without knowing more, to see that story as having any kind of conclusion or culmination.”

Brian Hanlon, the sculptor, faced a tight deadline creating Freeman’s statue. In an interview, the artist who is the official sculptor for The Rose Bowl and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, said he was approached by Pignatelli, the representative, at the unveiling of the Susan B. Anthony monument.

Facing a tight deadline, Hanlon began work in January.

Part of his job, he said, was to educate about important figures in history and his subjects his studio takes on must be spiritually and intellectually fit.

“Those are two important things in someone's life that we're going to build a statue of, that they have both of those things, and I believe this woman had them tenfold,” Hanlon said, adding that Freeman had the courage to seek counsel.

Freeman’s statue stands on the grounds of a white church and faces the home where the Sedgwick family lived.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.