Replevin of Elizabeth Freeman (Also Known as Mum Bett)


 
In Context | Primary Sources | In Phillis’s Words | Artist Insights | Further Reading

Elizabeth Freeman helped to end slavery in Massachusetts through a lawsuit she filed in 1781 arguing that the practice was inconsistent with the state’s new constitution, which clearly stated that “all men are born free and equal.” In this poem, Jeffers imagines Freeman, also known as Mum Bett, speaking to the profound injustice of being forced to seek her freedom in a system where only white men could argue her case and living in a world in which a Black person’s word was rarely taken as truth on its own terms. The poem is filmed a few steps from the balcony at the Old State House, which is where the Declaration of Independence was first read to the public in Massaschusetts.

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In Context

 

Born a slave in upstate New York sometime around the year 1742 and “given” to the Ashley household in Sheffield, Massachusetts, Elizabeth Freeman served the Ashleys until 1781. “Mum Bett” (also spelled “Mumbet”), as she was known while enslaved, was purportedly compelled to sue for her freedom for two reasons. First, Elizabeth had suffered bodily injury at the hands of Annetje Ashley, the mistress of the household. Particularly, the infamous story tells of Ashley attempting to strike Elizabeth’s sister or child, and Elizabeth intervening and taking the blow. The second possible reason for her suit, reported by later biographer Catherine Maria Sedgewick, was Freeman’s realization that she had legal grounds to claim her freedom after hearing the language of liberty contained in both the Declaration of Independence and the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Working with Stockbridge attorney Thomas Sedgewick, Elizabeth and Brom, an enslaved man, brought suit for their freedom. Elizabeth and Brom were successful, winning both freedom and a sum of money to cover trial costs. 

Elizabeth Freeman would spend the next 48 years of her life as a paid servant in the Sedgewick household. Freeman died as a free, property-owning, woman. Her gravestone, located within the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge, reads: “ELIZABETH FREEMAN, known by the name of MUMBET died Dec. 28 1829. Her supposed age was 85 years...She never violated a trust, nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper…”


Primary Sources

Links to documents and artifacts relating to the moment and events referenced in the poem.
 

The Massachusetts Court System, Writ of Replevin and Verdict from Bett and Brom vs. Ashley, dated 1781 and 1792 respectively
A replevin refers to the legal remediation measure that allows for the recovery of disputed property to its owner.
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Massachusetts Historical Society, Portrait of Elizabeth Freeman, dated 1811
In the painting, Elizabeth wears a gold necklace, which Jeffers refers to in her poem.
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Massachusetts Historical Society, Manuscript for the Biography of Elizabeth Freeman written by Catherine Maria Sedgewick
The biography was published in 1853 in Bentley’s Miscellany.
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In Phillis’s Words

Excerpts of Phillis Wheatley Peters’s writings that resonate thematically with Jeffers’s poems.
 

“...Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good, 
By feeling hearts alone best understood, 
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate 
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat: 
What pangs excruciating must molest, 
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast? 
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d 
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d: 
Such, such my case. 
And can I then but pray 
Others may never feel tyrannic sway...”


Artist Insights

CHERYL D. SINGLETON (Elizabeth Freeman / Female Voice in Approval) is very pleased to be working again with Plays in Place, having previously appeared in The America Plays at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Cheryl is a professional actress and arts leader with stage, screen, television and voice-over experience. Some of her credits include performances with: Front Porch Arts; Theatre On Fire; Lyric Stage Co.; New Repertory Theatre; Wheelock Family Theater; Gloucester Stage; Boston Playwright’s Theater; Commonwealth Shakespeare; American Repertory Theatre & Zeitgeist Stage; as well as productions with Ryan Landry and The Gold Dust Orphans, Queer Soup and ImprovBoston. A proud member of Actors’ Equity and StageSource, Cheryl serves on three arts boards in the Boston community.

 
HONORÉE FANONNE JEFFERS (Poet) is the author of five poetry books, including The Age of Phillis (Wesleyan 2020), long-listed for the 2020 National Book Award and winner of the 2021 NAACP Image Award in Poetry. In addition, Jeffers has authored one forthcoming novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois (Harper 2021).  She has received fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Witter Bynner Foundation through the Library of Congress. Currently, she is the 2021 USA Mellon Fellow in Writing.  Jeffers is Professor of English at University of Oklahoma.

JOHN OLUWOLE ADEKOJE (Director) is a national award winner of The Kennedy Center's ACTF Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award for the play Street Hawker; as well as a recipient of The Roxbury International Film Festival's Emerging Local Filmmaker Award for the documentary Street Soldiers, which also showed at the Pan African Film Festival in Cannes, France, The World Film Festival-Montreal, and the BronzeLens Film Festival in Atlanta. ADEkoje has received the Brother Thomas Fellowship Award and he is a playwriting Fellow at the Huntington Theater Company. Most recently, he was awarded the Emerging Filmmaker Award for Knockaround Kids, his narrative feature, at the Roxbury International Film Festival which all showed at the Urbanworld Film Festival in New York. Knockaround Kids can be found on Tubi, Amazon prime, Google Play, Apple and other film platforms. ADEkoje is the co-director and director of photography for the digital version of Hype Man (Company One/American Repertory Theatre) as well as the writer, director and projection/art designer for the Triggered Life Project (Portland Playhouse). He teaches film production and theatre at Boston Arts Academy.

PATRICK GABRIDGE (Producer) is a playwright, novelist, and screenwriter whose work has been read and produced around the world. With his company Plays in Place he creates new site-specific plays in partnership with museums and historic sites, including Mount Auburn Cemetery, Boston’s Old State House, Old South Meeting House, and Roosevelt-Campobello International Park.


Further Reading

Links to additional resources.


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