July 31, 2019
By Roy Lincoln Karp
For a number of years, I taught constitutional law to Boston-area teens using Supreme Court cases involving the rights of young people. My students sometimes questioned the relevance and even the legitimacy of a parchment document written over 200 years ago by white men, many of whom owned slaves. It was a good question and I tried my best to help them answer it thoughtfully. “We are not just studying the document drafted in 1787,” I told them, “but the stories of all those Americans since then who have fought for its principles.”
Many of those stories involve women of color who exemplified a kind of patriotism that the current occupant of the White House cannot come close to comprehending. From the earliest days of the Republic, brave black women have been fighting for the ideals of liberty and equality articulated in our founding documents. We would do well to remember women like Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman every time Trump takes to Twitter with his vile racism or whips up support for white nationalism at one of his rallies.
Born into slavery circa 1742, Mum Bett was owned by Col. John Ashley, a prominent resident of Sheffield, Massachusetts, and a leading supporter of the American Revolution. In 1773, Ashley helped draft the Sheffield Declaration, which stated 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.” This language was a precursor to the Declaration of Independence and the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which was drafted by John Adams and is still in effect today.
It is believed that Bett overheard meetings in the Ashley house in which these founding ideals were discussed and had come to believe they should apply equally to her and her fellow slaves. When she suffered a serious injury at the hands of John’s wife Hannah, who struck her arm with a hot kitchen shovel, she fled and sought assistance from Theodore Sedgewick, an attorney and abolitionist in nearby Stockbridge.
In 1781, Bett sued Ashley in the Court of Common Pleas for civil damages and at trial Sedgewick argued that slavery violated the state’s new constitution. A jury agreed and declared that Bett was not Ashley’s property and awarded her 30 shillings plus trial costs. The decision was a crucial first step toward the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts. Bett changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman and remained very close to the Sedgewick family until her death in 1829.
Since that court case in 1781, countless women of color have followed in Freeman’s footsteps, including political activists like Claudette Colvin, Rosa Parks, Fanny Lou Hamer, and Roxbury’s own Melnea Cass. Let us remember and honor these powerful women and not let Trump have the last word on what it means to be American or patriotic. Women of color have been a part of our story from the beginning, even when racially discriminatory laws and customs sought to exclude them. Generation after generation, they have fought to expand “We the People,” to become what legendary civil rights organizer Bob Moses called Constitutional People.