Saturday, October 24, 2020

Natural and Unalienable Rights: Mumbet's Declaration of Independence by Gretchen Woelfe

Article I. All men are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights....
                   --Massachusetts Constitution, 1780.
Mumbet didn't have a last name because she was a slave. Folks called her Bett or Betty. Children called her Mom Bett or Mumbet.  Others were not so kind.

Mumbet was the property of the richest landholder in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, Colonel John Ashley. The Colonel's wife had the sharpest tongue in town.
But Mumbet was as strong the mountains around her. Once when Mrs. Ashley tried to hit Mumbet's daughter with a coal scoop, Mumbet took the blow and refused to bandage it so everyone could see what her mistress had done. One day Colonel Ashley held a meeting for county leaders who were critical of British rule, objecting to the enforcement of the King's laws and taxes on them without their consent. Mrs. Ashley sent Mumbet in with refreshments for the meeting, and she took her time serving the men, listening to the comments.
"Write this down," Colonel Ashley ordered a young lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick. "Mankind in a state of nature are equal, free and independent!" Mumbet sat down her tray. Her heart fluttered. How could she secure her freedom?
Soon Massachusetts' representatives signed the Declaration of Independence and approved their new state constitution in 1780, and young men from Berkshire County went off to fight for independence.
Mumbet decided that she, too, would have independence.

Taking a market basket for cover, Mumbet went to office of Theodore Sedgwick and told him she believed that under the new Massachusetts Constitution, she, her daughter Lizzy, and all slaves in Massachusetts should be free.
"Yes, but...." Sedgwick gazed at Mumbet, standing strong as a mountain. "We will go to court together and test the new law. But if we lose..."
"I will be no worse off," said Mumbet, "And if we win, I will be free!"
Mumbet and Theodore Sedgwick won her case and also freedom for all slaves in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  Mumbet's first action as a citizen was to change her name, officially, to Elizabeth Freeman, and it was she who before the United States became a nation, was the first successful 
American abolitionist. Gretchen Woelfe's Mumbet's Declaration of Independence (CarolRhoda Books)  is a moving and suspenseful account of how liberation of slaves came first to Massachusetts and how as Elizabeth Freeman she lived a life as the trusted and paid  housekeeper and "second mother" to the Sedgwick family, and also the mother of all free black women in the United States. Author Woelfe's author's notes credit Catharine Sedgwick, Theodore Sedgwick's descendant, for the details of Mumbet's epitaph:

"She had no superior or equal. She never violated a trust nor failed to perform a duty. She was the most efficient helper and the tenderest friend.  Good mother, farewell."

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