The Impact Center for Public Interest Law is celebrating Black History Month by paying tribute to the pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement from the 18th and 19th Centuries who used the power of law to challenge slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow, or who faced the wrath of the law for trying to do so. These accounts demonstrate the power of human agency to make change, even under oppressive circumstances, and inform our continued efforts to challenge racial injustice. We’re proud to share the first in a series of these short reports:
Mumbet and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts

Despite the call for liberty in the Declaration of Independence and its statement that “all men are created equal,” the institution of slavery was pervasive in the colonies, and not just in the South. By 1790, there were as many as 40,000 enslaved people in the North. The persistence of slavery in the North, however, had begun to change nearly a decade earlier, due in no small part to the efforts of Mumbet, a 39-year-old enslaved woman who lived in bondage with her sister in the household of John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts.  

Mumbet was born into slavery sometime around 1742 in New York. When she was a young girl, Mumbet’s enslaver presented her and her sister as a wedding gift to Ashley, who then transported them to Massachusetts. In 1781, Mumbet sought the assistance of two attorneys, John Reeve and Theodore Sedgwick, to bring a freedom lawsuit on her behalf. It is not clear whether there was a particular catalyst for this. Family tradition holds that Mumbet was injured by Ashley’s wife while protecting her sister against Mrs. Ashley’s violent attack, and decided to sue for her freedom. Another account suggests that Mumbet decided to seek her freedom after she heard a reading of the newly adopted (1780) Massachusetts constitution—drafted by John Adams—which included a clause that stated that all men are born free and equal:

All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights, among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties, that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.

Whatever her motivation, Mumbet and Brom, a man Ashley also held in bondage and about whom less is known, initiated their case on May 28, 1781, in a very mundane and traditional way considering what was at stake. They filled out a writ of replevin against Ashley, asking the sheriff of Berkshire County, Massachusetts to return his wrongly held property to their rightful owners. Essentially, they used a traditional legal action to compel Ashley to release them, whom he wrongly held as property. Ashley refused, claiming that “they were his servants for life, thereby claiming a right of servitude at the said Brom & Bett.”

The court scheduled a trial for August 21, 1781. At the trial, Ashley moved to dismiss on the grounds that Mumbet and Brom were his legal servants “during their lives.” Mumbet and Brom, by their attorneys, opposed the motion on the grounds that they were “not, nor are either of them, nor were they, or either of them, at the time of the giving of the writ,” servants of Ashley during their lives. The jury found in favor of Mumbet and Brom, noting that, “they are not and were not . . . the legal . . . servants of . . . John Ashley during their life” and ordered Ashley to release them and pay them 30 shillings in damages.

Upon winning her freedom, Mumbet changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman. She left the Ashley household and went to work for the Sedgwick family in Massachusetts, where she remained until she died nearly 50 years later. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts officially banned slavery two years later in the Quock Walker case, holding that slavery was “repugnant” to the Massachusetts constitution. Massachusetts was one of only two states that listed no enslaved persons in 1790.

–Many thanks to John Paul Dominguez for his research assistance.

African-Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts, (last visited Feb. 9, 2021).

Constitution of Massachusetts 1780,

MHS Collections Online: Legal Notes by William Cushing about the Quock Walker Case,
transcript#page1 (last visited Feb. 9, 2021) 

Mumbet Court Records–Elizabeth Freeman, (last visited February 9, 2021).

Slave, Free Black, and White Population, 1780-1830 (Feb. 18, 2021). 

When did Slavery Really End in the North?, (last visited Feb. 18, 2021). 

Richard D. Marsico, Director

Swati Parikh, Executive Director, Office of Public Service and Pro Bono Initiatives

Jarienn James ’17, Law and Policy Program Coordinator 

Andrew Scherer, Policy Director 

Melissa Toback Levin ’19, Lewis Steel Racial Justice Project Fellow

Rachel Welt ’20, Lewis Steel Racial Justice Project Fellow
New York Law School
Impact Center for Public Interest Law
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