Telling Elizabeth Freeman's full story

Thursday September 8, 2011

SHEFFIELD -- Elizabeth Freeman can be considered one of the most influential African-Americans in Berkshire County and United States history. In recent years, many have begun to tell the story of the female slave who sued for her freedom from owner Col. John Ashley in 1780 and won in 1781 -- through books, special events and tours of the former Ashley home in Sheffield where she was enslaved.

But according to John Morton, a University of Massachusetts graduate student in American and public history and a former intern with the Trustees of Reservations, Freeman's story has never been given its full due.

"The Trustees had been telling her story as part of the Ashleys' (at the Ashley House), but they wanted to give her story its own place," he said. "It was easy for the story of the Ashleys to overshadow Elizabeth Freeman, and we needed to give her a spot where we could just tell her story."

Armed with a few details and a passion for history, Morton and two other interns, Elizabeth Bradley and Jessie McLeod, set to work with the goal of uncovering unknown details about Freeman's life.

After months of meeting with local experts, historians, exhibit designers and members of the local property committee, the new details they compiled have become the source for approximately a dozen panels now on view in an old converted barn on the property.

The panels focus on the themes of slavery, freedom and Elizabeth Freeman's legacy as they related to her life, and they are open to the public as "Elizabeth Freeman: A Story of Courage," an ongoing exhibit at the new outdoor Interpretive Center on the Ashley House property, celebrating the 230th anniversary of Freeman's landmark case.

"This project gets to the heart of our organization's mission. We are the oldest conservation organization in the country, and we have been saving land for years and working with people to preserve land -- and we want to embrace all opportunities of preservation," said Tammis Coffin, the Berkshire education coordinator for the Trustees of Reservations. "We need to tell everybody's story, and this particular story is as rare as an endangered species."

Visitors will discover long hidden-details of Freeman's life before, during and after her life as a slave for the Ashley family.

There are stories of Freeman's continued bravery throughout her life, and of the hard work that led her to own her own home, something virtually unheard of for a black and a woman in those times.

To further enhance her story, copies of Freeman's will and the writ from her famous court case have been found and are included in the exhibit.

Detailed lists of some of her favorite possessions -- a gold beaded necklace, silk dresses, her "Indian shoes" and a gold piece given to her by Theodore Sedgwick, her lawyer and employer after the case, after she saved the life of his infant son -- tell of the kind of life Freeman led after she obtained her freedom and all that she accomplished in her lifetime.

"Anyone, whether they are new to the story or an expert, is going to find something new here, because we've found some pretty amazing documents," Coffin said.

These documents help to tell Freeman's story beyond her role as a plaintiff in a court case -- as a working woman, a shrewd property owner, a mentor for children and more.

"By giving people her whole life -- where she was born, where she lived -- and fleshing out her story after the case we can show that the court case wasn't just a court case. It was about Elizabeth Freeman and who she was," Morton said.

Knowing Freeman's entire story, Morton added, also provides a glimpse into the history of the slave trade in New England, something Morton had believed was virtually non-existent after the Revolutionary War.

"I always thought that between the Revolutionary and Civil wars, slavery wasn't prevalent in New England," he said. "Even after Elizabeth Freeman's case it still existed in Connecticut and New York and because Massachusetts was a free state slaves were fleeing from those states to Massachusetts. A big part of Elizabeth's legacy is that she created this free place for them."

And now that legacy is on display for everyone to see.

"We have very few records of African-Americans during these early days of our country, and the fact that we have this story in such detail, and a building where she lived is really rare," Coffin said. "This story is really a treasure."

If you go ...

What: 'Elizabeth Freeman: A story of courage' at Elizabeth Freeman interpretive center

Where: Col. John Ashley House, 117 Cooper Hill Road, Sheffield

When: Interpretive center and grounds open daily, year round, sunrise to sunset. House tours Saturday and Sunday, 1 and 2 p.m., through Columbus Day.

Information: (413) 229-8600

In her footsteps ...

What: Elizabeth Freeman Center's ‘Walk a Mile in Her Shoes' event -- men walk to protest and prevent violence against women. Mayor James Ruberto, Police Chief Michael Wynn and Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski will join Berkshire County's first participation in the International Men's March to stop rape, sexual assault and gender violence -- now celebrating its 10-year anniversary

When: Third Thursday, Sept. 15, at 6 p.m.

Where: From the popcorn wagon at the downtown circle to Maplewood Ave., Pittsfield

Information: info@elizabeth


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions