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'A lasting honor of what she did': Statue of Elizabeth Freeman to be unveiled in Sheffield, Mass.

A bronze statue of Elizabeth Freeman will be unveiled Sunday in Sheffield, Massachusetts.

State Rep. Smitty Pignatelli, D-Lenox, launched the project a year ago to honor a once-enslaved, eighteenth century Black woman, who sued for her freedom and won.

The monument cost about $170,000. The state budget earmarked $75,000 for the project. Foundations and individual donations covered the rest.

Elizabeth Freeman was first known as Bett, and later, Mumbet. As a teen, she was enslaved by John and Hannah Ashley in Sheffield, where she worked in the house.

In 1773, on the second floor study of the Ashley house, a group of white men drafted a document called the Sheffield Resolves. It was aimed at the British crown and declared all men are born free and equal.

"RESOLVED, 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," it said.

Freeman probably served the men food and drink while they wrote, and overheard them talking about the idea of freedom.

About ten years later, something happened that spurred her to seek her own freedom.

She intervened when Hannah Ashley raised a shovel from a fireplace to reprimand a young girl who was also enslaved in the house. The girl, named Lizzie, was either Freeman's sister or daughter (historians disagree.) Freeman got in between the two and was struck by Ashley, which scarred her.

Freeman walked to the home of lawyer Theodore Sedgwick, one of the men who had signed the Resolves, to ask for his help to sue for her freedom.

Sedgwick agreed to take the case. Because women had limited legal rights, he included an enslaved man, named Brom, in the lawsuit.

In 1781 they won their freedom. She then changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman.

A few years later, after former slave Quock Walker won his freedom, slavery under the law ended in the state.

Diane Patrick is part of a group that helped plan the statue.

"For me and for my children and my grandchildren and anyone else who becomes aware of her contribution to our freedom, we have to have some monument to her. It is a lasting lesson and a lasting legacy and a lasting honor of what she did," Patrick said, "to win freedom for so many of us who came behind."

Diane and her husband, Deval Patrick, will speak at the unveiling along with Ambassador Theodore "Tod" Sedgwick, a descendant of the lawyer that won the suit.

Recalling Freeman's status as an enslaved woman, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said, "She was this powerless woman who was serving these relatively powerful men and listening to them and their conversation about the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and asking herself, 'What about me?'"

Patrick said he loves that Freeman could imagine these powerful ideas as her own and could persuade others to test that question.

"And I love that the Massachusetts courts had the integrity of purpose to take her question seriously," he said.

Patrick said Freeman's actions remind him of what he says is most hopeful about Massachusetts and the U.S.

"It feels like a pretty important message for any time, but especially so right now," the former governor added.

Clark University historian Ousmane Power-Greene has been calling for a statue to honor 'Mumbet' in Massachusetts for several years. He said she was a "path breaker" who played a critical role in history.

"This is a form of acknowledgment, which is a crucial part of reparations to me," he said. "I think that it makes western Mass. a leader in the forefront of acknowledging and recognizing the critical role of Black women in the state's history, in the nation's history."

Power-Greene pointed out that there is a statue of the abolitionist Sojourner Truth in Florence, a village in Northampton.

He said a public monument or statue provides a site for conversations and for education.

As part of the project to build the statue, an essay contest about Freeman was held at Mount Everett Regional School in Sheffield. The three students who won received awards totaling $1,781 — to commemorate the year Freeman won her freedom.

About six years after representing Freeman, Theodore Sedgwick became speaker of the House of Representatives. Before representing her, Sedgwick had purchased an enslaved person.

After winning her freedom, Elizabeth Freeman became a paid employee of the Sedgwick family, helping to run the household and care for the children.

Much of what is known about Freeman was written by Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Theodore Sedgwick's daughter.

When she was in her 60s Freeman purchased and moved to her own property. When she died, at about age 85, Elizabeth Freeman was buried in Stockbridge, in the Sedgwick family plot.

Corrected: August 22, 2022 at 9:25 AM EDT
The name of Clark University historian Ousmane Power-Greene was incorrectly written on second reference.
Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.