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Mum Bett

Years Before Dred Scott, this Determined Lady Sued for Her Freedom

By John T. Marck

Mum Bett came into this world about 1748. She was born a slave, owned by Peter Hogebooma Dutchman, who lived in Claverack, New York. Bett was raised and served here until she was 33 years old. At this time in 1781, during the American Revolution, she had gone to Sheffield, Massachusetts, where she now worked for Hogeboom's daughter and her husband John Ashley, a well-known judge and patriot.

While working for the Ashley's, Bett would serve food and drinks at many of Mr. Ashley's political meetings. It would be during these many meetings she would overhear remarks and was soon moved by the principles of the equalities of man she heard the patriots speak. It was during this time that the Bill of Rights was discussed, as well as a new constitution of Massachusetts.

Early in the year 1781, Bett went into town one day and stopped by the office of Theodore Sedgwick, a young lawyer she had seen at many of Ashley's political meetings. It would be here that Bett asked Sedgwick to sue for her freedom.

Because Bett could not read nor write, Sedgwick asked her why she believed she should be free. In a determined voice, Bett answered, "By keepin' still and mindin' things." She further went on to explain that she had heard that all people were born equal, and after thinking long and hard about this, she concluded that she should try "whether she did not come in among them."

Although Sedgwick and Ashley were friends, and in spite of the fact that Sedgwick had argued cases before Ashley, he decided to take Bett's case.

In the law suit, Sedgwick based the case on two arguments. The first was that there was no law in Massachusetts that ever established slavery, and secondly, that even if such a law existed, it would be annulled by the new Constitution. Having asked for and received a trial by jury, after a short deliberation, they found in her favor, and Bett was given her freedom.

John Ashley appealed the case, but before it could be heard, he dropped the appeal a few months later when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in another case that slavery was unconstitutional in that state.

Now free, Bett changed her last name to "Freeman," and continued to work as a domestic, although now paid, for the remainder of her life with the Sedgwick household. In 1785, the family moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where Bett died on December 28, 1829.

A beloved member of their family, she is buried in the Stockbridge cemetery at the central ring of the plot reserved for the Sedgewick family. Bett is also the only black person to have been buried in the Stockbridge cemetery.

Copyright 1993-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.