How an Enslaved Woman Took Her Freedom to Court

A new statue honors Elizabeth Freeman, who argued against slavery in a Massachusetts legal case

A monument of civil rights pioneer Elizabeth Freeman is unveiled in front of Sheffield's Old Parish Church in Sheffield, Massachusetts.
A monument of civil rights pioneer Elizabeth Freeman in Sheffield, Massachusetts Gillian Jones / The Berkshire Eagle via AP

In 1781, a jury in Massachusetts ruled in favor of an enslaved woman known as Bett, granting her freedom—more than 80 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. Her landmark case, Brom and Bett v. John Ashley, Esq., paved the way for the state to effectively outlaw slavery in 1783. She named herself Elizabeth Freeman to reflect her new status.

Her remarkable story has long been cast aside in history books. But earlier this month, officials and activists unveiled an eight-foot-tall bronze statue of Freeman in her hometown of Sheffield, Massachusetts.

“I’m glad she’s in the center of town,” Massachusetts resident Luci Leonard tells the Berkshire Eagles Matt Martinez. “That alone is going to cause folks to stop and see who she is.”

As an enslaved person, Freeman could not read nor write. But one day, so the story goes, she overheard a public reading of the Massachusetts Constitution that caught her attention. Published in 1780, the Constitution’s first article reads: “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights.” That didn’t quite square with Freeman’s lived reality.

After listening to the reading of the constitution, Freeman is said to have walked some five miles from the house of John Ashley, her enslaver, to the house of Theodore Sedgwick, an attorney who was involved in Massachusetts’ fight against the British. She asked if he could help her fight for her freedom in court; along with attorney Tapping Reeve, Sedgwick took the case. They then added to the case a man named Brom, also enslaved by Ashley. 

In 1781, Freeman and Brom won. Per the Berkshire Eagle, the two became the first enslaved people to gain freedom by invoking Massachusetts’ constitution.

Sheffield’s bronze memorial to Freeman faces the Sedgwick house. The unveiling was the culmination of a three-day celebration, which included a ceremonial walk from the Ashley house to the Sedgwick house in honor of Freeman’s journey. At the dedication ceremony, activists, historians and civic leaders spoke to the importance of remembering Freeman’s legacy.

Her story has been “largely understated and untold, if not erased from our American history,” Gwendolyn VanSant, co-founder of the racial equity nonprofit Multicultural BRIDGE, said at the event, according to the Berkshire Edge’s Shaw Israel Izikson. 

“For me, as a Black woman today,” she added, “these events symbolize the bittersweet journey of the lives of liberation that Americans of African descent have been on for centuries now, and the seemingly insurmountable struggle sometimes for peace.”

She also read a quote from Freeman, per the Berkshire Eagle: “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.”

Now, VanSant added, Freeman will “stand here longer than the minute she asked for.”

Though William “Smitty” Pignatell, a Massachusetts state representative, grew up close to Sheffield, he didn’t hear Freeman’s story until about 20 years ago. He tells Mark Pratt of the Associated Press (AP) that many of his Statehouse colleagues were also unaware of Freeman’s story.

“She’s clearly a hidden figure in American history, and I really believe Black history is American history,” Pignatelli tells the AP. “But unfortunately, Black history is what we haven’t been told and taught.”

Deval Patrick, former governor of Massachusetts and the first Black person to hold the office, led the ceremony with his wife, Diane.

“[T]his remarkable woman, enslaved, sometimes brutalized, unable to read, listened carefully … as the men she was serving discussed the concepts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as ‘inalienable rights,’” Patrick tells the AP. “I love that this powerless woman could imagine these powerful ideas as her own, and could persuade others to test that question.”

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