Mumbet Speaks Out
The story of a former slave in Sheffield––who won in court––is captured in book and film
Photo Credit: Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society
Suffice it to say, the remarkable story of Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman—the first enslaved African-American to win a freedom suit in Massachusetts—came to local authors Ann-Elizabeth Barnes and Jana Laiz without either of them asking for it. The pair’s collaboration to pen A Free Woman on God’s Earth has blossomed into a homegrown, artistic endeavor that will bring Mumbet to the silver screen thanks to what Jayne Atkinson, one of the film’s executive producers, calls “a happy band of locals.” This project tells the story of a woman whose choice to speak her truth made an indelible imprint on American history.
In 2001, Barnes was working as an historic-site interpreter at the Colonel John Ashley House in Sheffield when a particularly cold spring and few visitors left her with lots of time to read. She remembers stumbling upon a book containing the bare bones of the story of Mumbet.
Five years later, Laiz was teaching English as a Second Language at the Conte School in Pittsfield. It was February, and as she contemplated both who and what she would teach to her students during Black History Month, she received a routine email announcing a professional-development opportunity—in this case to hear Barnes speak about Mumbet the very next day in Great Barrington. Laiz attended, was blown away by the story, and before leaving asked Barnes a simple yet fateful question: How would you like to write a children’s book with me?
Mumbet, a slave owned by Colonel John and Hannah Ashley of Sheffield, lived in the Berkshires during Revolutionary War times. In fact, she served 11 patriots, in what is today the Ashley House, as they wrote impassioned letters to King George demanding freedom from the British. Mumbet, who could not help but overhear their conversations about enlightenment and freedom, took great interest in the Declaration of Grievances—which became the Sheffield Resolves, or the Sheffield Declaration, the precursor to the Declaration of Independence—a document whose sentiments, and their inherent irony, were not lost on Mumbet.
After a particularly brutal incident where Mistress Hannah Ashley intended to strike a servant girl with a hot poker, Mumbet raised her arm to block the blow and was burned to the bone. Despite the realization that she could no longer tolerate life as she knew it, Mumbet did not know what to do next. The answer came in 1780 with the writing of the Massachusetts Constitution, noted by Barnes and Laiz as, “an important document that expressed the rights and responsibilities of all the citizens of Massachusetts.” It was so vital that the leaders in Boston sent messengers on horseback to each town to read it to the citizens. In Sheffield, Mumbet went with her daughter to hear it read on the Sheffield Village Green. “All men are born free and equal,” she heard. Come spring, her arm healed, and Mumbet set her plan in motion.
To avoid rousing suspicions, Mumbet and her daughter, Little Bet, left the home of Colonel Ashley on market day and walked four miles into town to the home of Theodore Sedgwick, the young attorney Mumbet had grown to know from his time at the Ashleys’ house. When she declared that she intended to sue for her freedom, Sedgwick asked on what she would like to base her claim. According to Barnes and Laiz, Mumbet replied, “I heard what you talked on before and I heard those papers that were read in the study. That every man is born free and equal. Does that not stand for women too, and slaves at that? Must I really be a slave in Massachusetts? I am not a dumb critter, Mr. Sedgwick, and I am certainly one of the Nation. My own dear husband gave his life to help free this land! Don’t you know that?”
Knowing his involvement would cause some sort of storm with his good friend Colonel Ashley, Sedgwick had to ponder this point but nonetheless agreed to take Mumbet’s case, barring one detail: She would need a man to co-sue with her. Mumbet returned to the Ashleys’ and approached Brom—the slave of her master’s son—who, after some coaxing, agreed. The pair went to court in Great Barrington on August 19 and after two days, won their freedom.
“I am humbled beyond measure to know that Elizabeth ‘Mumbet’ Freeman and I grew up on the same land looking at the same sunsets,” says South Egremont native Alethea Root, the film’s director/producer. “We have walked the same paths in the woods and heard the familiar sounds of the Housatonic River rush past,” she adds, citing ties to the Berkshires that run deep. Root’s ancestor, Aaron Root, one of the 11 signers of the Sheffield Resolves, was not a slaveholder. “I am grateful for that,” says Root. “Indirectly, he was a part of the movement that helped Elizabeth ‘Mumbet’ Freeman win her freedom, and I am proud of that.” Root is also the niece of Barnes, who first stumbled upon the story of Mumbet in the Ashley House.
As to Mumbet’s fate? Upon being granted her freedom, she took Freeman as her surname and never returned to the home of John and Hannah Ashley. Instead, she went to work for the Sedgwicks, who hired her to be the family’s nanny, midwife, and healer. When Theodore Sedgwick moved his family 12 miles north to Stockbridge, where he built a mansion on Main Street situated on land purchased from the last native Mahican woman, Mumbet accompanied them. It was only after she had raised all of the Sedgwick children, who purportedly loved her like a mother, did Mumbet strike out on her own. She used her savings to purchase 12 acres on Agawam Pond, where she built a small house and lived as a nurse and midwife in a growing community of free blacks, including her daughter, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Mumbet died in 1829, at the supposed age of 85, and is buried in the Stockbridge Cemetery—the only non-family member to be included in the Sedgwick Pie cemetery plot there.
“Mumbet created a precedent. While she was not the first woman to sue for her freedom, she based her suit on a law,” Laiz says of the woman who first listened, then heard the words that ultimately granted her freedom. “That’s what makes her different and special.”
“Mumbet has orchestrated it so that her story would be told, that’s the feeling I get,” says Atkinson.
Laiz agrees. “The story of Mumbet has been in my consciousness for so long, and the evolution of this project has taken many, many years,” she says of the time span since her introduction to Mumbet. “She really is responsible for the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts. That’s what we need now: Someone who stands up, speaks her truth, and shows us that one voice really can make a difference and change the world.”
Atkinson’s passion for the film, which will be shot in the Berkshires, is enhanced by the fact that it will unfold in the very place where Mumbet walked, worked, and dreamed.
Barnes admits she was drawn to Mumbet’s story, one she considers to be “first of a human being, then a woman, then a person who was enslaved.” The author adds, “I saw this as a triumph of the human spirit, and the upright character of Mumbet that shone through everything she did.”
The story of Mumbet’s journey—a portion of which is reenacted each August along the four miles Mumbet walked from the Ashley House to the Sedgwick House in Sheffield to sue for her freedom—is nothing short of breathtaking. In June, the Berkshire International Film Festival held a staged reading of the screenplay that was written by Stephen Glantz.
Laiz and Tammy Denease, an actor/storyteller who brings unknown African-American women to life, took the story of Mumbet to the State House in Boston where few legislators—save for those with ties to the Berkshires—had heard of her.
“Smitty has been such a champion,” says Laiz of Representative Smitty Pignatelli, who is working with residents to establish a Mumbet Trail. Former Governor Deval Patrick is another staunch supporter of the project, deeming Mumbet’s story “an affirming one that we need to hear in what feels like dark times.”
“The story of Mumbet is calling to all of us to pay attention, to know what our rights are, to look at the law, to listen, and to be more informed,” says Atkinson.
Elizabeth Freeman, known by the name of MUMBET, died Dec. 28, 1829. Her supposed age was 85 years. She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years. She could neither read nor write, yet in her own sphere she had no superior nor equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a truth, nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper and the tenderest friend.
Good mother, farewell.
To mark the 247th anniversary of Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman’s famous court case, the Trustees of Reservations, in conjunction with the Ashley House in Sheffield, will host Mumbet Day on Saturday, August 18, from 10 am to 1 pm. A re-enacting of Mumbet’s four-mile walk is Sunday, August 19 starting at 9:30 am, from the Ashley House to the Sedgwick House in Sheffield, where Tammy Denease will do her Mumbet presentation.
Illustration by Jacqueline Rogers, from A Free Woman on God’s Earth.