Elizabeth Freeman's Life Researched in New Book

By Tammis CoffinCommunity Submission
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Tammis Coffin, education and outreach coordinator for The Trustees of Reservations, recently interviewed Emilie Piper and David Levinson on their research into the life of Elizabeth Freeman, also known as Mumbet, of Stockbridge, a slave who sued for her freedom and won. Their book, "One Minute a Free Woman: Elizabeth Freeman and the Struggle for Freedom," is being released this summer by the Housatonic Heritage/African American Heritage Trail.

Both authors will be present to sign and sell books at The Trustees of Reservations annual Mumbet Day at the Ashley House in Ashley Falls on Saturday, Aug. 21. More information at www.TheTrustees.org and www.AfricanAmericanTrail.org.

Question: What were your top questions about Mumbet/Elizabeth Freeman when your research began?

Answer: We wanted to know what Elizabeth Freeman's life was like as an independent woman apart from the Ashleys and the Sedgwicks — did she have a family, what was her personal life like? These aspects of her life had been almost totally ignored, so we give them much attention. Second, what is the true story of the suit for freedom and other aspects of her life, like was she married? Here, we looked at the historical record to see if the story as it has been told over and over for nearly 200 years actually reflects reality.

Q: What questions were you able to answer?

A: We were able to answer both questions. Basically, Elizabeth Freeman had a rich life of her own involving her family, her home, friends and her nursing and midwifery work. Her life for us was the beginning point for the examination of the lives of the other black families and black communities in the region. As for the suit for freedom, we found that the basic story seems to be pretty much what happened although we tweak some details here and there. And, no, she was never married. The story of the marriage to a man who died in the Revolution is not true and she was not [W.E.B.] Du Bois' great-grandmother.

Q: What questions still remain?

A: One of things we wanted to do as part of our family research was see if we could find any descendants of Elizabeth Freeman alive today. The last of her descendants in the Berkshires probably moved away in the 1860s, so we had to look elsewhere — in New York, Connecticut and even Liberia. We did identify a man living in New Haven, Conn., in 1965 but the trail ended there. We are sure there are descendants and maybe one will hear of the book. We would also have liked to learn more about her relationship with Theodore Sedgwick. And it seems like we'll never know anything about her parents.

Q: What were the most helpful documents you found?

A: For her family life, it was the detailed Census reports, tax records, deeds, wills and estate records which all together provided the information we needed to describe how families organized themselves and how they lived. The writing — public and private — of members of the Sedgwick family were an especially valuable resource.

Q: Tell us a little more about her influence during her lifetime.

A: To some extent her reputation was based on her identity as the woman who sued for her freedom and won. In the words of one prominent citizen, she was "a well-known character" in town. But she was liked and admired and valued mainly because of her work as a midwife and nurse and years later, people she cared for as children wrote of the care she gave them. It was this work plus her reputation for hard work, honesty and common sense that led Rev. Field to refer to her as "this excellent woman" in his eulogy.

Elizabeth Freeman, painted by Susan Ridley Sedgwick, circa 1812.
Q: Tell us a more about the will that Freeman left when she died and what you found interesting.

A: Wills are often an incredibly valuable and fascinating source of information. Unfortunately, few poor people and especially poor women had wills, so we are lucky that Elizabeth Freeman had one and one that has enormous detail about her possessions and whom she left them to. This was one of the first documents we read and it raised all sorts of questions about her own life and her relationship with the Sedgwicks that became the heart of the book. Most importantly, it listed all her immediate kin so we had for the first time a full list of the members of her family and we could then research each of them and follow their lives in the Berkshires and beyond.

Q: What do you think Elizabeth Freeman's life means for women today?

A: She was a strong, courageous, powerful woman who despite the triple disadvantages of being black, a woman, and illiterate never saw herself as a victim and instead lived a rich and independent life with much of her time and energy devoted to helping others. She continues to be a role model whose story continues to speak to many women today, rich and poor and black and white.

Q: Have you learned anything new since the book was published?

A: It is always the case that once a book appears so to do people interested in the subject and also new tidbits turn up in unrelated research. Just the other day while working on our next project — the Berkshire men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment — we found the following quote in an 1863 Berkshire Courier article: "Not the least distinguished person in the history of Stockbridge was old 'Mumbet' who nursed me when a child, holding me kindly in her black arms, until I was afraid of white folks." The article was written by Henry Field, then adult son of the Congregational minister David Field who had officiated at Mumbet's funeral in 1829.

The book is $24.95 and available at local bookstores.

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