If you don’t know who Elizabeth Freeman was, now is an excellent opportunity to hear about her fascinating life story as the first enslaved African American to sue for and win her freedom in Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War.
Although there is no detailed record of her life, historians have put together what they can to tell Elizabeth’s story. Elizabeth, who went by Bett for many years, was born into slavery in the 1740s.
She did domestic work at John and Hannah Ashley’s home in Sheffield, Massachusetts, and had many conflicts with the abusive Hannah.
John Ashley was a lawyer and often had political discussions and meetings in his home. This could explain how she heard about official documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Massachusetts Constitution.
Elizabeth heard ideas of freedom and equality before realizing that she deserved and was entitled to her personal freedom.
Around 1780, she sought help from young attorney Theodore Sedgwick who supported abolition. Elizabeth and Theodore were on a mission to sue for her freedom, something many enslaved people were unaware they could do at the time.
Theodore also enlisted the help of Tapping Reeve, the founder of one of America’s earliest law schools.
Many had tried to sue for their freedom through freedom suits in America before Elizabeth, but none were successful. Elizabeth’s attorney also brought Brom, another of the Ashleys’ slaves, into the lawsuit, and the case was named Brom and Bett v. Ashley.
John Ashley appeared in court to battle Theodore and Tapping in August 1781 at the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington.