Photo Gallery | 7th annual Mumbet Walk to Freedom
SHEFFIELD — Elizabeth Freeman knew, legally, she should be a liberated from her master — more than 80 years before President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
Freeman, or Mumbet, was nearly 40 when, based on the Massachusetts Constitution ratified a year earlier, felt Col. John Ashley could no longer own her.
So in the late spring of 1781, she trekked four miles from the Ashley home to the center of town to meet with attorney Theodore Sedgwick.
"She went to market with her basket and stopped to see Sedgwick for his help to sue for her freedom," said Mumbet historian Jana Laiz. "Back then, you needed a man to sue in court."
On Aug. 21, The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in the African-American's favor. The country's first successful civil rights case that paved the way two years later for the commonwealth to become the first state to abolish slavery.
Sunday being the 235th anniversary of Mumbet's winning her day in court, some 35 walkers retraced her steps in the 7th annual Walk of Freedom.
Sponsored by the Ashley House Property and Sheffield Historical Society, the trek took roughly 90 minutes, culminating in a ceremony at the Sedgwick House and a re-enactors portrayal of the civil rights trailblazer.
Laiz and co-author Ann Elizabeth Barnes organized the first walk in 2010, a year after publishing their book "A Free Woman on God's Earth: The True Story of Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman."
Barnes don't be surprised that Sheffield and the Berkshires was the birthplace to eventually end slavery nationwide.
"A lot of abolitionists were here in the 1700s," she said. "One of them was [Rev.] Samuel Hopkins, a fiery preacher."
The Barnes/Laiz book and freedom walk are among the local efforts in recent years to heighten the importance of Mumbet's story toward ending slavery in America.
Tammy Denease says Mumbet standing up for herself is why she is her favorite African-American woman to portray that history forgot.
"What sets her apart is her wanting to be respected I can most identify with her," she said.
Tammy Denease [FYI she forgoes her last name for publicity purposes] walked the four miles, then changed into 1780s clothing to become Mumbet telling her life story before the walkers gathered on the grounds of the Sheffield Historical Society.
Across Main Street on the Sedgwick House front porch, Berkshire state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli read a state legislative proclamation in honor of Mumbet and her modern-day supporters.
He recalled how Tammy Denease performance as Mumbet at the Statehouse a few years ago opened some lawmakers eyes and ears to the history-making woman.
"I had colleagues — including some African-American colleagues — who never heard this story," he said. "This isn't just African-American history, it's American history."
Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman's legacy is currently on display as part of the Sheffield Historical Society's summer-long exhibit, "Where the Berkshires Began." The display at the organizations' Old Stone Store gallery and gift shop chronicles the town's first 100 years. Sheffield was the first Berkshire community incorporated in 1733, nearly 30 years before the county itself was formed.