Slavery and the Making of AmericaDramatic re-enactment of a slave in uniform
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Portrait of Elizabeth Freeman
Elizabeth Freeman, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1811
um Bett and her sister were slaves in the Ashley family home in Massachusetts. There, they were subject to the violent eruptions of their mistress. When Mrs. Ashley attempted to hit her sister with a hot shovel, Mum Bett rushed between them, taking the blow herself. The burning iron left an indelible scar.

In the years leading up to 1776, the streets of Massachusetts were flooded with talk of American freedom. So was the residence of Colonel Ashley, who hosted meetings of impassioned revolutionaries. Mum Bett took great interest in the sentiments she overheard on the way to market and listened carefully to the conversations of the men she served at the Colonel's dining table.

Photo of dramatic re-enactment of Elizabeth Freeman and her lawyer from Episode 2: Liberty in the Air
Elizabeth Freeman and Her Lawyer in Episode 2: "Liberty in the Air"
Inspired by America's fight for liberty, Mum Bett and a slave named Brom took their own battle for freedom to court. Both won their independence. Mum Bett, who changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman, set the stage for the abolition of Massachusetts slavery.

Photo of dramatic re-enactment of Mum Bett and her sister hugging in episode 2.
A Debated Identity

Photo of dramatic re-enactment of Mum Bett and her fellow slaves in the kitchen of the home in which she worked.
In the early nineteenth-century, Harriet Martineau, a writer and advocate of equal rights for women, wrote a biographical account about Elizabeth Freeman. In it, she states that both Elizabeth and her sister, also named Elizabeth, were Ashley slaves. But today, some people, including John Sedgwick, a descendant of Freeman's lawyer, argue that it was Elizabeth's daughter, not her sister who shared her bondage. Why else, they wonder, would the two women have the same name? In an age when most slaves could not write their own histories and many slaveholders were uninterested in the kinships between slaves, it is difficult to resolve debates like this one. We may never know the true identity of the girl Mum Bett saved from Mistress Ashley's hot iron.

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