State Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland talks with Tammy Denease, who played the role of Mum Bett in the House of Representatives chambers
State Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland talks with Tammy Denease, who played the role of Mum Bett in the House of Representatives chambers on Tuesday, as the Legislature recognized the former slave’s pivotal role in ending slavery in Massachusetts. (John Tlumacki / Boston Globe)

BOSTON -- Mum Bett, one of the most important historic figures in the commonwealth but virtually unknown east of the Berkshires, was honored on Tuesday afternoon at the Statehouse by state and local officials.

The event was part of Black History Month in Massachusetts. It was co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Black and Latino Caucus and state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.

"Her story is hidden in the jewels of history," said Pignatelli. Later, he admitted that it was "very surprising" that so many of his colleagues, even those of African-American descent, knew almost nothing about Bett.

"She was an important figure in the commonwealth," said keynote speaker Roderick L. Ireland, Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, "but Mum Bett has never received the credit she deserved."

Mum Bett, who adopted the name Elizabeth Freeman in her later life, was the first African-American slave woman to win her freedom in a landmark case in 1781. Two years later, Massachusetts became the first state to declare slavery unconstitutional. Bett's legal victory is largely credited with that event.

She lived in Sheffield, and her court case was heard in Great Barrington - but beyond the Berkshires, Mum Bett is not particularly well known.

"When we lose our memory, we lose ourselves," said state Rep. Byron Rushing, D-Boston. Rushing has been an ardent spokesman for civil rights in the country and nationally for more than 30 years.

"We can only appreciate slavery if we understand how horrific, difficult and systematic it really was," he said. "Let us hear and heed Elizabeth Freemen."

"Elizabeth Freeman deserves a public place in American history," said Jana Laiz, co-author of Bett's biography, "A Free Woman on God's Earth," published in 2009. "She's my hero."

Laiz said she believes the Mum Bett story should be a part of the history curriculum of not just every child in Massachusetts, "but every child in every school across the country needs to hear this story. It is so important "

Laiz was at the Statehouse to pass out copies of her book and attend the ceremony.

"She stood up for herself, and changed the course of American history," agreed Robert DeLeo, Speaker of the House, who opened the ceremony.

"She is legendary," said state Rep. Gloria Fox, D-Boston, of Mum Bett, when she was introduced as the longest-serving African-American woman in the state House of Representatives. She corrected that introduction.

"I am the only serving African-American woman in the House," she said. "The struggle continues -- for all of us."

The highlight of Tuesday's event was a performance by Connecticut actress Tammy Denease, who has a one-woman show about Mum Bett.

"Ordinarily, it's about 45 minutes," said Denease before her performance, "but they asked to me to scale it back."

Denease is originally from Mississippi. When she moved to the Northeast, she said, "I was kind of surprised . In Mississippi, it's mandatory to know your heritage. Up here, I discovered African-American people didn't really know their heritage so much."

Denease has been performing as Bett for several years. She researched the part extensively before performing it, and created period costumes to add to the realism.

One of her last lines in Tuesday's performance was one of Mum Bett's most famous quotes.

"Any time, when I was a slave, if one minute's freedom had been offered to me," said Denease/Bett, "and I had been told that I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it just to stand one minute on God's earth a free women."

To reach Derek Gentile:
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