Letter: Sorting out history of Mum Bett


To the editor of THE EAGLE:

There are some problems with the story of Mum Bett as told by Derek Gentile in the Eagle of Feb. 26. The document shown by The Eagle was not written in 1781. The author of that piece was Catharine Maria Sedgwick, daughter of Theodore Sedgwick, Mumbet’s lawyer in the slavery case. It was probably written about 1835 and is the only source we have for the details of Mum Bett’s encounter with Mrs. Ashley. Since Catharine was born long after the incident and was an author of romantic novels, it is quite likely that she embellished the story with her vivid imagination.

One error in Catharine’s story is the statement that Mum Bett referenced the Declaration of Independence for the statement that all men are born equal and have a right to freedom. Most probably she referred to Article I of the 1780 Massachusetts constitution, which really ended slavery in the state.

Since we do not know all the particulars of Mum Bett’s court case, perhaps the best summation is found in this 1795 account by the Duke de la Rochefoucault-Liancourt, who visited Pittsfield that year. "In 1781, some Negroes, prompted by private suggestion, maintained that they were not slaves; they found advocates, among whom was Mr. Sedgwick ... and the cause was carried before the supreme court. Their counsel pleaded, 1st, That no antecedent law had established slavery ... 2nd, That such laws, even if they had existed, were annulled by the new constitution. ... They gained the cause under both aspects ... As there were only few slaves in Massachusetts, the decision passed without opposition, and banished all further idea of slavery."

Finally, there is no evidence that W.E.B. Du Bois was descended from Mum Bett, as stated in the Eagle’s sidebar.




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