W.E.B Du Bois Center to Host Elizabeth Freeman Roundtable

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SHEFFIELD, Mass. — The W.E.B. Du Bois Center for Freedom and Democracy of Great Barrington will present a roundtable discussion on the life and legacy of Elizabeth Freeman, the first enslaved African American to successfully sue for her freedom in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The roundtable will take place Friday, Aug. 19, at 4 p.m. at Dewey Hall. A reception will follow the roundtable.

This the first in a series of events honoring Freeman's journey to freedom that will take place in Sheffield from Aug. 19-21. A full schedule of events can be found here.

In recent years, Freeman's life and legacy have been interpreted through exhibits at the Colonel John Ashley House in Sheffield, a stop on the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail, and numerous books and publications. 

Much of her public story was shaped by an 1853 biography written by Catharine Maria Sedgwick, the daughter of Freeman's longtime employer. Nationally, Freeman has been memorialized by a statue at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture; her portrait appeared in The 1619 Project, the New York Times' 2019 exploration of the history and legacy of American slavery.

"But Freeman never told her own story," writes Sari Edelstein in "'Good Mother, Farewell': Elizabeth Freeman's Silence and the Stories of Mumbet, an article published by the New England Quarterly in 2019. "The recent proliferation of children's books on Freeman vividly demonstrates the desire for a celebratory national story, one that can be seamlessly woven into grade school curricula that enshrine the founding ideals and ennoble exceptional individuals.

"And yet, Freeman's story is more complex than such accounts allow, and the instrumentalization of her life narrative raises questions about the stories told in the absence or suppression of archival material and about how narrative serves as one tool among many for the containment of black lives, even those that are celebrated."

Edelstein, an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, will be joined at the roundtable by three historians — Kendra T. Field, an associate professor of history and Africana Studies and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University; Kerri Greenidge, an assistant professor of race, colonialism, and diaspora and co-director of the African American Trail Project at Tufts University; and Frances Jones-Sneed, professor emeritus of history at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts — to engage the myths and realities of Freeman's life as an entryway into a larger conversation about stories, silences, and the ethics of African American public history.

Suggested donation at the door: $20. A light reception will follow the talk.

Elizabeth Freeman and the Telling of Black Stories is cosponsored by Dewey Memorial Hall, Housatonic Heritage and the Upper Housatonic African American Heritage Trail, and the African American Trail Project at Tufts University, with support from the Sheffield Historical Society. 


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