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

SHEFFIELD -- A 233-year-old legal victory that freed a town icon from slavery's shackles is interpreted differently depending who you're talking to.

But those who honored Elizabeth "Mum Bett" Freeman's release probably never knew before this weekend's celebration about the conflicting accounts of her new-found freedom.

The central question: Did Freeman flee her owner Colonel John Ashley's home to arrive four miles away at the doorstep of Theodore Sedgewick, attorney and abolition sympathizer?

Or, did Ashley, Sedgewick and Freeman collude, essentially staging a trial to deal a deathblow, following Freeman's case in 1781, to slavery in the young, newly independent, commonwealth?

The latter interpretation, based on "circumstantial," non-primary evidence is the conceit of a play, written by Jesse Waldinger and directed by his Barbara Waldinger, and performed at the Ashley House on Cooper Hill Road on Saturday -- not to the satisfaction of some employees who work at the site, like Rene Wendell, a conservation ranger at the house and Bartholomew's Cobble, the 329-acre National Natural Landmark nearby.

Wendell characterized the interpretation as revisionist history abetted by "rich white guys" in an attempt to appropriate credit for putting an end to the vile practice in Massachusetts.

"Some people think, ‘How could this woman who couldn't read or write have done this brilliant thing by herself?' " Wendell said.

Any other conclusion seems inventive when one considers the history, according to Wendell.

Specifically, Wendell pointed to a violent event preceding Freeman's flight where Hannah Ashley, the colonel's wife, sought to strike Freeman's child with a hot shovel and Freeman stepped in the way, taking the blow on her arm and suffering a deep cut.

"That was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back," he said.


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Given such harsh treatment in the Ashley home, confirmed in a firsthand account by Sedgewick's daughter, Catherine, and the legal defense put up by the colonel against Sedgewick's case for freedom, Wendell and other Ashley House employees think the history is crystal clear.

Jesse Waldinger, the writer of the play performed Saturday, points to history of his own.

"[Colonel Ashley] wanted [Freeman] to come back and work for him after being paid wages," Waldinger said. "The play adopts an interpretation, based on several historians' accounts, that Ashley was in on it."

Andrew Joffe, who plays Ashley in the play, said further that the colonel freed his five slaves without a blink following the case and never even appeared in court on the last day.

"If he was really invested in winning the case he probably would have been there, right?" Joffe said.

Wendell maintains this was not the case. He says Freeman's cause was in formed both by ill treatment and the talk of freedom and equality notorious in Sheffield and throughout the colonies at the time.

The "Sheffield Dec laration," which mirrored the Decla ration of Inde endence in style and substance -- was in fact drafted in a pine-panelled room on the second floor in
the colonel's house, where Freeman heard much of the proceedings.

It took an act of will on the part of Freeman to see these arguments applied in her case and, soon, the cases of all African slaves in the commonwealth, Wendell said.

Regardless of where one stands on the history, the play, "Mum Bett's Minute," which stars as Freeman first-time actress and interpretive dancer Marla Robertson, 33, originally of Tennessee, can be seen twice at Third Thursday in Pittsfield this week in the Whitney Center for the Arts on Wendell Avenue at 5:30 and 7 p.m.

Freeman became a servant at the Sedgewick family home after the winning case. Sedgewick, who later served as a delegate, Representative and Senator in Massachusetts, would later write that "[Freeman's] life and character" served as a refutation of "the imagined superiority of our race to hers."

To reach Phil Demers:
pdemers@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 281-2859.
On Twitter: @BE_PhilD