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Statue to honor Elizabeth Freeman, once enslaved woman who won freedom in court – NBC10 Philadelphia

The story of an enslaved woman who went to court to win her freedom more than 80 years before emancipation was relegated to the margins of history.

A group of community leaders, activists and historians hope the lack of recognition will end Sunday in quiet Sheffield, Massachusetts, with the unveiling of a bronze statue of the woman who chose the name Elizabeth Freeman when she threw off the chains of slavery 241 years ago. day

Her story, while remarkable, remains relatively obscure.

State Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli grew up near Sheffield in western Massachusetts’ Berkshire County, but hadn’t heard her story until about 20 years ago. He found that many of his colleagues in the State House were also largely unaware of the significance of her case, which set the legal precedent that essentially ended slavery in Massachusetts.

“She is clearly a hidden figure in American history, and I truly believe that black history is American history,” said Pignatelli, a Democrat. “But unfortunately, black history is something we haven’t been told or taught.”

The enslaved woman, known as Beth, could not read or write, but she listened.

And what I heard did not make sense.

While she worked as a slave in the home of Colonel John Ashley, he and other prominent citizens of Sheffield met to discuss their grievances against British tyranny. In 1773, they wrote in the so-called Sheffield Ordinance that “mankind in the state of nature are equal, free, and independent of one another.”

These words were repeated in Article 1 of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which begins “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights.”

It is believed that Beth, after hearing the constitution read publicly, walked about 5 miles from the Ashley family to the home of attorney Theodore Sedgwick, one of the citizens who drafted the Sheffield Ordinances, and asked him to represent her in her trial. the quest for freedom, said Paul O’Brien, president of the Sheffield Historical Society.

Sedgwick and another lawyer, Tapping Reeve, took up the case.

At the time, women had limited legal rights in Massachusetts courts, so an Ashley slave named Brome was added to the case.

The jury agreed with the lawyers, freeing Beth and Brom on August 21, 1781.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and his wife, Diane, are Berkshire residents and have been instrumental in fundraising and organizing. They conducted the Sunday ceremony.

“What I love about this story is that this remarkable woman, enslaved, sometimes cruel, unable to read, listened intently to the conversation at the table as the men she served discussed the concepts of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as ” inalienable rights,” Patrick, the state’s first black governor, said in an email. And I like that the Massachusetts courts had the integrity of purpose to take her issue seriously.”

Pignatelli was inspired to erect a statue of Freeman last year when he attended the unveiling of a statue of Susan B. Anthony in Adams, the Berkshire community where the suffragist was born.

He rallied interested parties and raised about $280,000, enough money for a roughly 8-foot statue as well as a scholarship fund in Freeman’s honor for high school students.

Gwendolyn VanSant, CEO of BRIDGE, a local nonprofit that promotes racial understanding and justice, oversees the scholarships.

She called Freeman an icon and a trailblazer. “It’s amazing for me as an African-American woman to follow in her footsteps,” she said.

After the trial, Ashley asked Freeman to return to his house as a paid servant, but she refused and instead went to work for Sedgwick, where she helped raise his children and was affectionately known as Mumbet.

She was a doctor, nurse and midwife who bought her own property in nearby Stockbridge, VanSant said.

Mumbet was so deeply respected by the Sedgwicks that when she died in 1829 aged about 85, she was buried with them, the only family member in the family plot. Much of what historians know about her was written by one of Theodore Sedgwick’s daughters, the novelist Catherine Maria Sedgwick, O’Brien said.

The statue, cast by renowned sculptor Brian Hanlon, was installed in the grounds of the First Congregational Church in Sheffield, not far from the Sedgwick home.

“We don’t know if Elizabeth Freeman went to church, but we do know Ashley did, and it was common for slave owners to bring enslaved people to babysit their children at church,” O’Brien said.

Although about 200 people were expected to attend Sunday’s unveiling, the culmination of three days of festivities, organizers were unable to locate any of Freeman’s descendants.

VanSant hopes the permanent memorial will spur interest in Freeman’s story. “Maybe her descendants will find us,” she said.

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