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

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.

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. 

SHIRA SCHOENBERG

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

A $1 billion mystery: Businesses have been pushing for a $1 billion bailout of the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, but now it appears there may be no need for any bailout at all. US Treasury data indicate the fund has righted itself financially, with enough money to pay off $2.3 billion in federal loans and have more than $600 million left over.

— Sen. Patricia Jehlen of Somerville on Wednesday went public with the surprising news, shooting down a Republican amendment that sought to increase a planned bailout from $500 million to $1 billion. She also questioned the need for the original $500 million.

— The Baker administration didn’t clear up the confusion. “While the situation with the UI Trust Fund is constantly evolving, it is not accurate to say that the fund is in a position to be able to pay back federal advances while continuing to pay benefits without additional stabilization funding,” the administration said in a statement. Read more.

— On Thursday, a senior analyst at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center called on Gov. Charlie Baker to set the record straight. “We shouldn’t consider public bailout of employers’ unemployment insurance debt when accounts indicate no bailout is needed. If the administration thinks other data will change this picture, then it needs to produce the data,” said Phineas Baxandall. Read more.

Back a second time: Gov. Charlie Baker refiled a marijuana impaired-driving bill, which would put cannabis on the same legal plane as alcohol. Drivers pulled over and suspected of using marijuana would be required to take a blood, saliva, or field sobriety test or lose their license for six months. Currently, however, there is no Breathalyzer equivalent for marijuana the way there is for alcohol. Read more.

Senate sets priorities: An ARPA spending bill moved closer to the finish line, as the Senate Wednesday night finished work on its $3.82 billion version. The House and Senate now need to resolve differences between the two branches. Read more.

OPINION

No more real guns: Emmett Folgert, who works with Boston youth and has served as a “set guardian” on a number of movie productions, says it’s time to ban real weapons during film shoots. Read more.

Vets deserve better: Coleman Nee, a former secretary of veterans services, says vets are owed top-notch medical care even as their ranks decline. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

The Senate passes Nero’s Law, allowing first responders to treat and transport a wounded police dog, rather than waiting for a veterinarian. (MassLive)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Danvers is coming under intense scrutiny, with calls for an independent investigation, due to reports of racist behavior and sexual misconduct by members of the high school hockey team. (Salem News)

Boston mayor-elect Michelle Wu calls Tuesday’s shootout in Dorchester that left a man dead and three officers wounded an example of a failed system. (GBH) She also puts Monica Bharel, the former chief of the state Department of Public Health, in charge of overseeing the cleanup of Mass. and Cass. (GBH)

Three Boston city councilors — Ricardo Arroyo, Kenzie Bok, and Ed Flynn — have begun jockeying for votes to be elected council president by their colleagues when the new term for the council begins in January. (Boston Herald)

Great Barrington considers easing the housing shortage by limiting short-term rentals only to those whose home is their permanent residence. The measure theoretically would force owners of second homes to rent long-term or sell. (Berkshire Eagle)

After 52 years, two Vietnam veterans reunite in Worcester on Veterans Day. (Telegram & Gazette)

A Southwick selectman is facing a recall effort due to fallout from the debate over whether to allow Carvana to open there. (MassLive)

West Springfield appoints a committee to examine the issues surrounding cryptocurrency – and the potential for municipal investment and resident payment options. (MassLive)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Advocates for domestic violence victims are denouncing the decision of the Southcoast Health board of trustees to allow the system’s president and CEO, Mark Hovan, to remain on the job following his arrest on domestic assault and firearms charges. (New Bedford Light

Opioid overdose deaths are continuing to rise in Massachusetts. (Eagle-Tribune)

Boston MedFlight is shuttling patients around the state – and sometimes out of state – in attempts to find ICU beds, as hospitals struggle with staffing shortages and numerous sick patients. (USA Today)

Worcester area representatives call for a hearing by state regulators related to the interruptions in hospital care at St. Vincent’s due to the ongoing nurses strike. (MassLive)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

The US and China strike a climate agreement at the Glasgow summit. (NPR)

Rep. Seth Moulton is pushing legislation that would extend some veterans’ benefits to the descendants of Black World War II veterans since those vets often faced discriminatory barriers accessing things like VA-backed home loans. (Boston Herald)  

ELECTIONS

The Boston Herald’s Joe Dwinell says Chris Christie is taking some shots at Donald Trump, suggesting the former New Jersey governor could be preparing to go at it against Trump in a bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. 

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

A Lawrence family sues a funeral home after a casket split open mid-funeral. (MassLive)

ARTS/CULTURE

Is Santa vaccinated? Different malls have different rules regarding whether mall Santas need to have gotten the COVID vaccine. (MassLive)

The union representing about 200 workers at the Museum of FIne Arts in Boston has approved a one-day strike for next Wednesday over wage and other issues. (Boston Globe

Jo-Anne Sbrega is retiring after more than 10 years as director of the Children’s Museum of Greater Fall River. (Herald News

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Vineyard Wind plans to build an offshore wind control center in New Bedford. (Standard-Times)

PASSINGS

Harris Berman, a pioneering health care leader in the region who helmed Tufts Health Plan and went on to become the oldest dean of a US medical school, died at age 83. (Boston Globe) Harris talked about the challenges he faced in trying to reform medicine in this 2004 deep dive by CommonWealth into the state of health care — and the backlash against managed care.