Sheffield statue to honor Mum Bett, 1st Mass. slave to sue for freedom

1781 case challenged slavery under the state constitution

BEFORE THE EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION freed the slaves, before Rosa Parks or Harriet Tubman, there was Mum Bett.

A Black slave in the Sheffield home of Colonel John Ashley, a prominent Berkshire judge, Mum Bett could not read or write. But she could hear. And in the 1770s in Ashley’s home, Mum Bett overheard plenty of conversations about freedom. The Sheffield Declaration, which Ashley helped write, expressed anger at how Great Britain was treating its subjects and declared that every man is equal and free. The Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780 both promised liberty.

“She could hear them say these words and say, ‘Why not me?’” said state Rep. Smitty Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat.

Mum Bett walked around five miles from Ashley’s home to the center of Sheffield to meet with prominent attorney Theodore Sedgwick and talk about suing for her freedom. Some suggest Mum Bett may also have been influenced by an incident when the house’s mistress tried to strike Mum Bett’s sister with a heated shovel, and when Mum Bett intervened, her arm was injured.

“It was a pretty outrageous thing when you think about it,” said Paul O’Brien, president of the Sheffield Historical Society. “Not only was she a slave, she was a Black, she was a woman, yet she got up enough courage to get up and walk to the center of town to talk to the attorney about getting her freedom.”

In 1781, represented by Sedgwick, Mum Bett and another slave named Brom, sued Ashley. Sedgwick argued that the Massachusetts Constitution outlawed slavery. A jury in the Berkshire Court of Common Pleas agreed and set the two free.

The verdict in Brom and Bett v. Ashley, a court case declaring slavery in Massachusetts unconstitutional.

It was one of the first cases in which slavery was adjudicated in Massachusetts. Three subsequent cases related to a slave named Quock Walker would result in a declaration by the Supreme Judicial Court that slavery is unconstitutional.

Once freed, Mum Bett changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman and worked as a paid domestic servant in Sedgwick’s home.

“She was the first person in Massachusetts, the first slave in Massachusetts, to sue for her freedom and win,” O’Brien said.

Pignatelli said growing up in nearby Lenox, he never heard of Mum Bett. But once he learned about her story, he was inspired. “I look at Mum Bett as a lost pioneer of the social justice movement in American history,” Pignatelli said. “This woman, even as an enslaved person unable to read nor write, she stood up and stood tall and said, what about me?”

Pignatelli recently announced an initiative with the Sheffield Historical Society and the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation to raise $200,000 to install a statue of Freeman in the center of Sheffield, next to the church Mum Bett attended with Ashley and across the street from Sedgwick’s home. The statue’s unveiling is scheduled for August 21, 2022 – the anniversary of the date Mum Bett was emancipated in 1781. The statue will be paired with an annual high school essay program and a college scholarship for a local student.

The gravestone of Elizabeth Freeman in Stockbridge. (Mass.gov)

Pignatelli said he is generally not interested in building statues, but he believes Freeman’s story is one that needs to be shared with the world. “There’s so much Black history that’s been lost, but I’d argue that Black history is American history. And in American history, we have an obligation to tell the truth and tell the real story,” Pignatelli said.

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The statue, to be located in the predominantly white, rural community of Sheffield, in predominantly white Berkshire County, is being discussed at a time of a national reckoning on race. Many communities – even the US House of Representatives – have considered removing statues of white individuals associated with slavery.

Pignatelli said he hopes the installation of this statue will gain national attention. “I really believe the eyes of America will be on the Berkshires that day,” he said.