Carole Owens: The unequaled Mumbet

STOCKBRIDGE — There is a film in the works about Elizabeth Freeman, affectionately called Mumbet. ("Octavia Spencer signs on as executive producer of local film 'Mumbet,' " Eagle, April 6).

It is amazing how much we know about a woman who lived more than 200 years ago, was born a slave, and could neither read nor write. Mumbet remained a slave more than three decades and demanded her freedom after hearing the Declaration of Independence read aloud. Historians can recount the events of her life and divine her character by the roles she played, and yet, the problems facing the writer are different from those facing the filmmaker. In the first place, what did she look like? What did she sound like? What was her stance and what were her gestures?

We have one portrait. Sadly it is a single image frozen in time. In it her age is estimated at 67 years. We can only guess how she looked as a young woman or child.

Luckily we can clothe her. In her will, she left her "gowns" to her daughter, granddaughter, and great granddaughter. To differentiate which went to whom, Mumbet described them. She had three black silk gowns, a large silk shawl, and a bird's eye petticoat. She had a short gown that was her mother's, a white shawl with flowers, and cotton hose. She had a great coat, linen handkerchiefs, and a pair of blue stockings. The exact descriptions of her Holland shifts are lost in time, but one had lace and other had tucked ruffles. She mentioned a purple and white gown, a stripped gown, a figured chintz short gown, a yellow shawl, chintz muslin aprons, a black velvet hat, blue broad cloth cloak, and coarse cotton stockings.

In her portrait, Mumbet cannot move or speak but merely look. However in her will, she "speaks." She says, "The black silk gowns I do got from Philadelphia — I do received of my father."

It was with the help of Catharine Maria Sedgwick's father, attorney Theodore Sedgwick, that Mumbet won her freedom in August 1781. Afterward and until her death in 1829, Mumbet was a paid servant in the Sedgwick household. Catharine Sedgwick knew her for 50 years. As a respected author, Sedgwick was in position to give Mumbet speech, personality, and movement. She did just that in "Slavery in New England" published in 1853, but we cannot know if Sedgwick transcribed Mumbet's words as she heard them or anglicized them. It is equally impossible to know if Sedgwick reported accurately or romanticized the events in the life of a woman Sedgwick called her "second mother."

Mumbet is drawn as a woman of spunk and courage with a keen sense of justice. When she was abused, she did not cover the wound. When anyone asked what happened Mumbet replied, "ask Misses."

Kept her foot down

When a young girl was abused at home, Mumbet took her to "my master" over the objection of her mistress. Mumbet said, "I got speech of Master as he was getting off his horse." Bet went around her mistress and got justice for the girl. "Madam knew when I set my foot down," Mumbet said, "I kept it down."

Sedgwick wrote, "Mumbet's character was composed of few & strong elements. Action was the law of her nature, and conscious of superiority to all around her, a state of servitude was intolerable."

Mumbet did not resent the work. She was not in awe of "her kind master" nor afraid of her "despotic mistress." Sedgwick wrote, slavery was abhorrent because of "the galling of the harness, the irrepressible longing for liberty."

Sedgwick went on, "I have heard her say with an emphatic shake of the head peculiar to her, `Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute's freedom had been offered to me & I had been told I must die at the end of that minute I would have taken it "

Mumbet had an "upright form" and "an aristocratic contempt" for marauders and slackers. During Shays' Rebellion, she told men who sought to break into Sedgwick house that she would scald to death the first invader. "The insurgents knew she would keep her word & on that occasion they kept their distance." Sedgwick wrote.

Mumbet also had a sense of humor and could turn a phrase. She called those she did not respect, `Nick Bottom the weaver'; another 'Robin Thieving the tailor', and Tom Snout the tinker."

Mumbet "perfectly maintained the decorum of her station, but she had not one particle of subservience. Her integrity and resolute mind were apparent in her deportment."

She was loved during her life, and remembered with respect in death. Her tombstone reads in part: "Elizabeth Freeman was born a slave yet in her own sphere she had no superior or equal."

Carole Owens is a Betkshire writer and environmentalist.


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