(This is the first in a series of stories about mostly unknown women in the history of the United States. Women have always been smarter than we men, and, unfortunately, their accomplishments and heroic actions have not always been reported by a male dominated society. Here is number one. I hope you enjoy reading about her).
In 1773 Betty Freeman was a slave. Her master was Colonel John Ashley, who was holding a meeting of the leading citizens of Sheffield, Massachusetts. After much deliberation, they drafted what many called the “first declaration of independence”. Called the “Sheffield Declaration”, it read: “Mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property”.
Freeman, as most of Ashley’s other slaves, had become a slave as a baby, and had been held in involuntary servitude ever since.
Three years later, when the same group of men were discussing the Declaration of Independence drafted by the new government, she heard more words: “All men are created equal”. In 1780 as Ashley and his associates discussed the newly drafted Massachusetts State Constitution, she heard: “All men are born free and equal, and have the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties“.
Indeed, these were noble words, but none of them were meant to apply to her or any other slave, even though her own husband had lost his life fighting in the Revolutionary War.
After she attended a meeting where the Declaration of Independence was being read, she made up her mind to make an effort to end her lack of freedom. The next day she walked to the offices of Theodore Sedgwick, a lawyer and vocal opponent of slavery. Her words to Sedgwick were straight to the point: “Sir, I heard that paper read yesterday, that says all men are born equal, and that every man has a right to freedom. I am not a dumb critter, won’t the law give me my freedom?”
Sedgwick found her question interesting. The laws of the State of Massachusetts at the time were somewhat peculiar. Slaves were defined as ‘property’, but they were also recognized as ‘human beings’. In past years a number of slaves had won their freedom by proving that their mothers had been born free, or if a slave owner had made a promise to free a slave and reneged. But this would challenge the legality of slavery under the laws of the new country
After attempts to force Ashley to release Freeman from her servitude, she and another slave who had joined in the lawsuit by the name of Brom had their day in court in August of 1781. The people of the State of Massachusetts took their freedom seriously, and the jury decided that Betty Freeman and Brom were to be set free immediately. In addition, Ashley was forced to pay each of them 30 shillings.
Sedgwick went on to have a distinguished political career, serving the state of Massachusetts in both houses, and then in the United States House of Representatives and the Senate. He ended his career as a justice in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, and served until his death in 1813.
As for Betty Freeman; When Ashley lost the case, he asked Freeman to come to work for him as a paid servant. Ashley’s wife had been a cruel mistress, often beating the slaves. Freeman declined. She went to work for Sedgwick, and after many years saved enough money to buy her own house and retire. She died in 1829, and was buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Her tombstone is still standing. One of her grandchildren was W.E.B. DuBois, one of the most important civil rights leaders of the 20th century.
What did freedom mean to Betty Freeman? Sedgwick’s daughter Caterine recounted Freeman’s word: “Any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told that I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it jut to stand one minute on God’s earth a free woman”.
By James Turnage