Following in Elizabeth Freeman's wake

Thursday June 24, 2010

"Any time, any time while I was a slave,

if one minute's freedom had been offered

to me, and I had been told I must die

at the end of that minute,

I would have taken it --

just to stand one minute

on god' airth a free woman -- I would."

-- Elizabeth Freeman

STOCKBRIDGE -- A well-executed pursuit of the past may shed light on the present.

Elizabeth Freeman was a pioneer in the African-American experience -- the first woman to successfully sue for her liberty in Massachusetts. She helped to end slavery in this state.

Freeman she wrote a pivotal chapter in the narrative of the nation; W.E. Du Bois claimed her as either his figurative or literal ancestor, and her name is included in any comprehensive list of important figures during Black History Month.

But many people do not yet know her name.

Two writers have decided to expand that sparse chapter into a complete work, taking a close look at Freeman's life, where others were content to let assumed facts stand.

"One Minute a Free Woman -- Elizabeth Freeman and the Struggle for Freedom," published by the Upper Housatonic Valley Heritage Trail, tells how any lifetime has unpredictable complexities, with compelling new twists and turns even centuries later waiting to be revealed.

Emilie Piper is a research librarian at the Berkshires Athenaeum's history department, the local history collection with materials ranging from Herman Melville's manuscripts to a local genealogy. Working in the largest gathering of the county's history, it occurred to Piper that there was "not a lot of material about Native and African ethnic" stories.

A striking instance of this incompleteness led her to Freeman.

Piper approached David Levinson, the editor of the African American Heritage Trail. Levinson had edited a collection of articles in 2006, "African American Heritage in the Upper Housatonic Valley." Piper had contributed to that collection, and it had a section on Freeman.

Levinson commented that the material Piper had gathered on Freeman and her community "had the makings of a good article " and then, as the amount of information grew, "the makings of a good book."

Piper and Levinson will discuss how they delved into Freeman's life on Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Stockbridge Library.

Piper had already written a book about black orderly Agrippa Hall. She said she enjoyed tracing details for the new project.

"It was fun to see it all come together," she said.

Cultural anthropologist Levinson turned his focus outward.

"It was a good story," he said, "not just about her life." The book expanded "into other black families in the area, spread out over time and place."

Applying their specialties, they entered a three-year collaboration that spanned West Haven and Connecticut and "covered the territory" of Freeman and her community.

Piper and Levinson pored over census records and court documents. A slave born in Claverack, N.Y., Freeman came to the Berkshires as a slave to Colonel Ashley in Sheffield beginning around 1744. She left and refused to return to the farm when Mistress Ashley struck her in the head with a shovel.

Freeman consulted abolitionist lawyer Theodore Sedgwick to put forth her case, and they won -- the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared slavery illegal in the state.

The story has a tender human element, according to Levinson. Theodore's daughter. Katherine Sedgwick, was a novelist, essayist, and artist who mentioned the mutual fondness between the lawyer's family and the freed slave who soon afterward came to work for them.

The Sedgwick chldren called Freeman "Mum Bett." She cared for them, since their real mother was often ill. Freeman became a well-known midwife, living with striking independence for her race at the time.

The children she delivered and cared for remembered her in their adult diaries. Hundreds owed their lives to her -- according to lore, she never lost a child -- leaving a greater impression during her lifetime than her lawsuit did.

Her relationship with the Sedgwick family did not end when she left their service. She continued to visit them, and afterward her children and her employers kept in contact until all the Freemans left the Berkshires.

Piper and Levinson were interested also in Freeman's will, which Piper called "unusual" for a black woman. The document had never been seriously considered before, she said, and she was "astonished" at the list of Freeman's household possessions, which suggested a level of comfortableness that exceeded her black contemporaries.

Her farm, bought during her work as a midwife, she left in trust to her daughter and grandchildren.

Piper and Levinson traced Elizabeth's lineage to 1965 in Connecticut. During the course of interviewing modern black residents, they came to realize that her story was not discussed in schools.

On Sunday, they will describe the experience of cutting through the folklore to find truth. Before and after the event, the Historic Museum and Archives will be open.

Barbara Allen, curator of the Stockbridge Library's historic collection, describes their book as "history that touches," a valued addition to the established facts of Freeman's life.

If you go ...

What: 'One Minute a Free Woman,' new book on the life of Elizabeth Freeman -- talk and reception

Where: Stockbridge Library,

46 Main St., Stockbridge

When: Sunday at 2 p.m.