A lot of people believe that Dred Scott was the first African American to sue for and receive his freedom. He was not.
Mum Bett was born in 1748. Born a slave in Claverack, New York, she served Peter Hogebooma Dutchman until the age of 33. During the American Revolution in 1781 she was given to Dutchman's daughter and her husband, John Ashley in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Ashley was a town patriot and judge.
Bett was a server at many of Ashley's political meetings. During these meetings she would hear how these patriotic men spoke so often about equality a freedom. Although these men were speaking about white males, Bett considered her possibilities as a black woman. . It was during this time that the Bill of Rights were discussed, as well as a new constitution of Massachusetts.
During the spring of 1871 Bett stopped into the office of Theodore Sedgwick while in town. Sedgwick was a lawyer and a regular at the political meetings in which she served. It would be here that Bett asked Sedgwick to sue for her freedom.
Bett not being able to read nor write, was asked by Sedgwick why she believed she could sue and receive her freedom. 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."
Sedgwick and Ashley were friends, and in spite of the fact that Sedgwick had never argued a case for anyone besides Ashley, he decided to take Bett's case.
Sedgwick in the lawsuit based her rights on two factors. The first being that the State of Massachusetts had never established legal slavery, and the second being that even if it had, the new constitution had annulled it. Bett asked for and received a trial by jury, and after only 30 minutes of deliberation, she was given her freedom.
While Ashley did appeal the case, he dropped it a few months later after other slavery cases had been ruled in favor of slaves.
In 1785 Bett moved to Stockbridge Massachusetts where she changed her name to Freeman. She continued to work as a domestic only this time having her own house and receiving pay for her services.
The only black person to be buried in Stockbridge Cemetery, Bett died in Stockbridge in 1829 where she was buried in the family plot of her lawyer Mr. Theodore Sedgwick.
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