The first enslaved African American woman in Massachusetts to win a freedom lawsuit was Elizabeth Freeman.
Elizabeth Freeman is not a well-known figure, but her narrative helped establish a precedent for the abolition of slavery in the Bay State. Participants on the Basic Black panel informed the show’s host Callie Crossley that Freeman should rank right up there with Rosa Parks and other well-known, groundbreaking Black women.
Freeman, formerly known as Mum Bett, was enslaved since childhood. Although she could not read or write, she brought forth a lawsuit in 1781 to win her right to be free. At the time, other states and colonies had freedom lawsuits against enslavers who promised freedom, but Freeman’s case was different in that it targeted the state. She won in a ruling that proved slavery was illegal per Massachusetts’ state constitution, and she got to choose her new name. It is no surprise she picked “Freeman.”
L’Merchie Frazier, the director of education for the Museum of African American History in Boston and Nantucket described Freeman as, “a woman of integrity, of honesty, and a pursuant person in the public life of liberation and freedom.”
After hearing her captors talk about their own release from Britain, Freeman understood she could pursue freedom, according to Frazier. She felt inspired to hire a lawyer after hearing the statement “all born free and equal.”
“There’s this tension that is there between slavery and freedom and those who are engaging in this practice,” said Frazier.
Kyera Singleton, executive director of the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, also noted tension, saying it allows people to talk about the prominence of slavery.
She added, “One can have enslaved people in their service and still take on this case because for them, that is a political challenge and if successful, that’s going to advance their own political goals and ideals. And so, I think that tension is really important.”
Singleton said history has always been transformed through the actions of Black women, adding, “Elizabeth Freeman’s story can, you know, allow us to imagine what a more just future looks like.”
There are still traces of Freeman to be found today. Sophia Hall, the deputy litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston, said she sees Freeman in her clients.
“Every single time they come forward with the being the first person to push jurisprudence just a little bit further, every time they stand up against a police department and say that this was unjust, that this was excessive force, every time we talk about changing employment practices that are systematically drawing out people of color from promotions, from access from fair discipline — every single person I work for is a Freeman,” Hall said.