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A Story of Justice and Freedom

The Legacy of Elizabeth Freeman

During the Revolutionary War, Patriots spoke of “Freedom” and “Liberty” throughout the Commonwealth. But, those words meant something very different to enslaved people living in Massachusetts.

The commerce of slavery was deeply integrated into the Massachusetts economy in the 18th century. Many white colonists, including Colonel John Ashley, who owned Ashley House and the surrounding fields in the 1700s, used 
enslaved laborers.

There were five enslaved people in the Ashley House including a woman named Bett. Her riveting story endures today. Bett could not read or write, but when she heard Ashley and other locals discussing the drafting of the Sheffield Resolves in 1773, she heard repeated a statement that she realized should apply to her and her fellow enslaved people: RESOLVED: That mankind in a state of nature are equal, free and independent of each other and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property.

After similar language was included in the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780, Bett sought out a lawyer, sued for her freedom, and her case prevailed. As a free person, she then changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman and lived out the rest of her long life as a beloved member of the community of Stockbridge, MA.

It was because of Bett’s courage and determination that the institution of slavery was finally abolished in Massachusetts. In her honor, we celebrate Elizabeth Freeman Day in Massachusetts every year on August 21, the day her freedom was won. Her legacy—which inspires us to take action against injustice to this day—is encapsulated in this video, in an exhibit at Ashley House in Sheffield, MA, where Bett had been enslaved, and in the virtual exhibit, featured below.

Learn more about the legacy of Elizabeth Freeman in this virtual tour of the Colonel John Ashley House. Also, learn more about her life as a freed woman as a valued member of the Stockbridge community. [Video by Above Summit]

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  • Story Time
  • Make With MAAM
  • MAAM Conversations

Story Time

Story Time
Join MAAM Curator of Education Mesma Belsaré for a reading of Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence by Gretchen Woelfle.

Make With MAAM

Make With MAAM
Looking to Learn Educator Julia Einstein teaches us how to paint a miniature portrait to honor someone who has impacted your life.

MAAM Conversations

MAAM Conversations
Tammy Denease – performing artist, storyteller, actor, and playwright – and Curatorial Fellow Michaela Blanc examine the life and legacy of Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman.

Come Celebrate Elizabeth Freeman

The Sheffield Historical Society presents a free outdoor exhibit celebrating Mum Bett (Elizabeth Freeman) Fri-Sun 8/21-23, 11AM-4PM. Visit sheffieldhistory.org for details.
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Freedom & Liberty

Elizabeth Freeman's story is told in an exhibit developed in Feb. 2012 by UMASS student interns Jessie McLeod, Elizabeth Bradley, and John Morton, on view at Ashley House, and below.
Ashley House

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