A painting of Mum Bett at the age of 70.
A painting of Mum Bett at the age of 70.

STOCKBRIDGE -- One of the state's most important historical figures, former slave Elizabeth Freeman, will be honored at the State House on Tuesday, Feb. 25, in a House Chamber ceremony from 11:30 a.m. until 1 p.m.

Freeman, formerly known as Mum Bett, was one of the first black slaves in Massachusetts to file a "freedom suit" and win in court under the 1780 state constitution.

"In the Berkshires, Mum Bett is pretty well-known," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli. "Beyond our county, that's not the case. I think Black History Month gives us a great opportunity for people outside the Berkshires to hear this amazing story."

Massachusetts Chief Justice Roderick Ireland will give the keynote speech.

In addition, actress Tammy Denease will present a 15-minute reenactment of the story of Mum Bett.

Denease is a Connecticut-based actress who specializes in reenacting the stories of prominent black women from history. In addition to Mum Bett, her characters include Elizabeth Keckly, another former slave who won her freedom, and Bessie Coleman, the world's first African-American aviatrix.

Bett was born a slave and was owned by the Col. John Ashley family of Sheffield. Ashley was, by all accounts, even-tempered. His wife, Hannah, however, was not.

Hannah Ashley at one point struck Bett with a red-hot coal shovel, scarring her face. This moved Bett to travel to nearby Stockbridge, where she sought the assistance of Stockbridge attorney Theodore Sedgwick.


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Through Sedgwick, Mum Bett and another slave, Brom, won their freedom in 1781, a legal victory that essentially led to the end of the slave trade in Massachusetts in 1789.

Mum Bett grew extremely attached to the Sedgwick family and, after changing her name to Elizabeth Freeman, worked for the family until her death in 1829.

She is buried in the family plot in Stockbridge and has a prominent place in it.

"People talk about Harriet Tubman and other prominent African-Americans in our history, but Mum Bett is at least as important as they are," said Pignatelli.

There is an annual Mum Bett Day in the Berkshires, celebrated at the Col. John Ashley House in Sheffield on Aug. 21. That was the day the court approved Mum Bett's petition for freedom.

The 179-year-old Ashley House, the oldest house still standing in the Berkshires, is now owned by the Trustees of Reservations.

Wray Gunn, chairman of the Col. Ashley House Committee in Sheffield and a local historian, said he was happy that the story of Mum Bett will be told at the Statehouse.

Gunn said he plans on attending the event.

This week's event is co-sponsored by state Reps. Byron Rushing and Russell Holmes, as well as the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus.

"It is an honor to assist in recognizing such an unknown prominent figure in both African-American history and women's history," said Holmes.

To reach Derek Gentile: dgentile@berkshireeagle.com, or (413) 496-6251. On Twitter: @DerekGentile