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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 319

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This is the grave of Elizabeth Freeman.

Born into slavery around 1744 on a farm near Claverack, New York, Freeman’s experience wasn’t so unusual. New York was the center of American slavery in the North. While there were slaves in all the colonies and while many of the colonies with light slave populations made a lot of money in the slave trade (hello, Rhode Island!), it was in New York where slavery was the most entrenched. That took two general forms. First was in the bustling commercial center of New York City, which had a pretty dense slave population and a couple of the nation’s first big slave revolts. Second was on the lands of the Dutch settlers in the Hudson Valley, many of whom had sizable estates. This was the situation Freeman was born into.

Called “Bet,” by her master, Freeman was given to his daughter at the age of 7. She stayed with that family for about 30 years. She had a child, was possibly married, but we can’t be sure about that. Freeman stood up for herself and others in any way possible. For instance, in 1780, she intervened when her master tried to beat another slave with a shovel and took the beating herself. The shovel made a deep cut on her arm. She refused to cover it up so that everyone who came to the house who ask her how it happened and she could blame her master. Now that’s pretty brave!

By this time, her master was living in Massachusetts. In 1780, Freeman heard the Massachusetts state constitution read publicly. Since it said “all men are born free and equal,” she decided to sue for her freedom. She and her fellow slave Brom, approached the young abolitionist lawyer Theodore Sedgwick, who agreed to take their case. Brom and Bett v. Ashley was the pioneering case that started the end of slavery in Massachusetts. The jury agreed they should not be slaves. They were freed and given compensation for their labor. The case did not put the final nail in the coffin of slavery in Massachusetts, but it laid the groundwork. It was at this point that Bett took the name “Elizabeth Freeman,” showing her pride in her enormous victory and her newfound freedom. Her former owner actually wanted to hire her back for wages, but she chose to work in Sedgwick’s house instead. She also had a regionwide reputation as a healer and midwife and so did a lot of work in that. After Sedgwick’s children grew up, she moved in with her daughter near Stockbridge, where she lived until 1829.

Elizabeth Freeman is buried in Stockbridge Cemetery, Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit more people who were key in the anti-slavery struggle in the North, you can donate the cover the required expenses here. David Walker is buried in Boston, albeit it in an unmarked grave, while Frederick Douglass is in Rochester. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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