County history goes national tonight

Sunday April 8, 2012


Key chapters from the saga of Berkshire County's early history will be on display tonight for a national television audience through the eyes of husband-and-wife actors Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick.

Segments of the episode in the 10-part series "Finding Your Roots," hosted by well-known Harvard Prof. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr., were filmed in Stockbridge, where Sedgwick family members still reside and maintain the historic family homestead.

Kyra Sedgwick, 46, has deep roots in the area as a descendant of Theodore Sedgwick, the attorney, politician and judge who helped free Mum Bett, the Sheffield slave whose successful 1781 case was instrumental in paving the way for the end of slavery in Massachusetts.

The actors, who live with their two children in nearby Sharon, Conn., share much in common -- Bacon's Quaker ancestors repudiated slavery in 1780, Gates told The Eagle. Sedgwick and Bacon are 10th cousins, once removed.

But Gates acknowledged another reason for choosing the couple -- he's a big fan of Sedgwick in the TNT cable crime series, "The Closer," an Emmy- and Golden Globe award-winning role for her. Gates also admires Bacon's acting skills.

By Sedgwick's choice, the TV series ends its run this summer after seven seasons; she is reportedly earning $300,000 per episode, up from $250,000 in 2007. There have been 109 episdes all together, and the show has been basic cable's most widely-viewed series. (According to her publicists, Sedgwick was not available for an interview this past week.)

"I had no idea that Kyra was related to Theodore Sedgwick, her 4th great grandfather," said Gates in a telephone interview from his Harvard office.

Other Gates findings: W.E.B. Du Bois, the African-American leader born in Great Barrington, is not a descendant of Mum Bett, as some claim. And Theodore Sedgwick was a slave owner before Mum Bett walked into his Great Barrington law office in 1780 to make her case for freedom.

Gates said he also discovered that Kevin Bacon's great-grandmother, Lydia Atkinson, kept a diary during the Civil War, taught newly freed slaves how to write, and composed a poignant account of her feelings after President Lincoln was assassinated. Genealogical research confirmed that the actor's 8th grandfather, Samuel Bacon, was born in 1626.

As a young lawyer in Great Barrington, Theodore Sedgwick -- who had migrated to the Berkshires from his native Hartford, Conn. -- was known for helping Mum Bett, who later took the name Elizabeth Freeman, win her freedom.

Later, he served as U.S. Senator from Massachusetts and as House Speaker. In 1802, he was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, where he served until his death in 1813. He was buried in the Stockbridge Cemetery, where his grave is the centerpiece of the "Sedgwick Pie," where many family members were laid to rest, along with Mum Bett, whose grave has an inscribed monument.

Kyra Sedgwick's family tree in this country starts with Major-General Robert Sedgwick, who arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636, part of the Great Migration from England. Theodore Sedgwick had 10 children (three died during their first year), including Catharine Sedgwick, now recognized as one of the nation's first leading female writers.

She wrote extensively about the Mum Bett case, and her narrative, voiced by Kyra Sedgwick, recounts the story of the slave's escape from her master, Col. John Ashley of Sheffield after Ashley's wife attempted to strike Bett's sister Lizzie with a heated kitchen shovel, injuring Bett as she blocked the attack.

Quoting from Catharine Sedgwick's 1853 essay "Slavery in New England," the actress tells how Mum Bett was inspired to seek her freedom after attending a reading of the Declaration of Independence at the Sheffield Meeting House in 1780.

"She walked into Theodore Sedgwick's law office and exclaimed: ‘All men are born equal, and every man has a right to freedom; I'm not a dumb critter, won't the law give me my freedom?'"

(Sedgwick's article notes that "she is acclaimed and simply recognized as Mammy Bet, Mumbet, Mum-Bett, and Betty, all derived from her first name, Elizabeth. Since she lacked a surname for most of her life, she sued for freedom under the name Bett and adopted the name Elizabeth Freeman after winning her lawsuit in 1781.")

Following arguments by Theodore Sedgwick, along with colleague Tapping Reeve, the jury agreed that the new Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 determined that "all men are born free and equal." On appeal, the state Supreme Court upheld the ruling.

Having won her case, Bett as Elizabeth Freeman was employed by the Sedgwick family in Stockbridge, helped raise their children and bought her own adjoining house later on.

"Catharine Sedgwick is the reason we are a tourist destination," said Stockbridge Library Museum and Archives Curator Barbara Allen. "She drew people from the literary and artistic world to this area, they came to meet her and they ended up living and staying in the Berkshires."

Sedgwick helped usher in the Gilded Age, as Stockbridge and Lenox became a cultural mecca and magnet for the wealthy.

"The Sedgwicks have been continually involved in just about everything here in town," said Allen. "They helped put up the first library, and they were part of putting Stockbridge into the broader world."

The original Sedgwick house at 22 Main Street, built in 1785, is part of the National Register of Historic Places district in downtown Stockbridge.

Owned by the Sedgwick Family Trust, the home is carefully maintained by Arthur Warton Schwartz, the fourth great-grandson of Theodore Sedgwick.

"So often, modern younger generations have no idea where they came from, no connection with their history or heritage," he said. "I think it's a good thing to encourage this family to come back here and get a sense of where they came from."

"Kyra is good about coming to the reunions with her family," Schwartz said. "As an architect, I do my best to keep this place up and make sure it doesn't fall down before the next generation sees it."

Having moved in 15 years ago, he succeeded Sedgwick descendant Alice Vohl who ran Sedgwick House for 35 years with her husband, Helmut (they now live in West Stockbridge). "My next address is the cemetery," Schwartz quipped.

His greatest challenge in maintaining the property, Schwartz explained, is "trying to be honest with history, with the materials and the feel of the place. We've tried to maintain the main part of the house as much as we can, without being goofy."

Schwartz is mindful of Mum Bett's role in the family's history. "Without her, a lot of us wouldn't be here," he said. "She was the one who raised everybody at that time."

"It's a little daunting to live in the midst of history, starting out felt a little weird," he conceded. "But once you understand what you're really here for and keep your focus, it's sort of fun."

To reach Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto

If you watch. . .

n What: "Finding Your Roots," public-TV series conceived and hosted by Harvard Prof. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr., and tonight featuring the episode "Not a Dumb Critter," the story of Mum Bett and the Sedgwicks of Stockbridge, as told by actors Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon.

n When: Tonight (Sunday) at 8, on WGBY, Channel 57, Springfield and WMHT-TV, Channel 17, Schenectady, N.Y. Check listings for cable-channel information.


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