Bett and her younger sister Lizzie were born in slavery. Sometime after 1758, they were inherited by John and Hannah Ashley, having been the property of Hannah’s father, Pietre Hoogeboom.
The sisters served the Ashleys until Bett was in her 30s. It was a trying time, for while John Ashley was a kind master, Hannah was hard to please and thought nothing of abusing them, particularly Lizzie who did not take orders as easily as Bett.
Bett, however, used her time at the Ashleys wisely. John Ashley was one of a group of men who chafed under British rule. They met often at the Ashley home, and Bett’s job was to sit outside the door and keep the men well-supplied with drink and food. She also kept her ears open, and what she heard made a deep impression on her.
From these meetings came the Sheffield Resolves, one of the earliest protests from the colonies against England. Bett wondered then, and later after she heard the Declaration of Independence, if these lofty ideals applied to her, a slave.
One day, after Bett had intervened between Hannah Ashley and Lizzie and had been burned by a fire iron intended for Lizzie, she decided she could stand living under Hannah Ashley’s roof no longer. she walked three miles to the home of Theodore Sedgwick, another of the group who drafted the Sheffield Resolves, and asked him to represent her in a suit for her freedom.
Sedgewick agreed after listening to her compelling argument. John Ashley secretly sided with Bett but allowed the suit to go forward as both he and Sedgewick were interested in how the courts would rule. At that time, women could only be party to a criminal suit, not a civil one. So a male Ashley servant, Bron, was added to the complaint.
The court found in favor of Bett and Bron. John Ashley appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, just to make sure the ruling was sound. That court upheld the lower court’s ruling.
Bett took the name Elizabeth Freeman and went to work for the Sedgewick family, who called her “Mumbet” and came to love her so much, that she is buried in the family plot in Stockbridge, MA, a decision that stirred controversy of its own.
Bett’s determination was inherited by her great-grandson, W.E.B. Dubois, who later became a strong proponent of the civil right’s movement.