Friday, March 14, 2014

Finding Mumbet

March 14 - Today's post contributed by Gretchen Woelfle

Finding Mumbet

I love writing about little-known people and I’m pleased that editors are publishing books about them. Every season sees more new heroes entering the lists. As for Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, the hero of Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence (Carolrhoda Books), I discovered her while researching Write on, Mercy! the Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren. Not for the first time, research for one book led to the next one.

Both Mercy (white and well-educated) and Mumbet (an illiterate slave) lived in Massachusetts during the American Revolution – Mercy in Plymouth, Mumbet in the Berkshires on the western edge of the state.  Both used Revolutionary fervor to advance their causes: Mercy, to write and publish her political views; Mumbet to sue for her freedom. Mumbet, owned by Col. John Ashley, the richest man in town, and tormented by his cruel wife, retained an inner strength that kept her dream of freedom alive.

I try to bond with my subjects, and that often happens when I travel to their home territory. This was true with Mumbet.  ‘Twas a frigid day of January that I was given a “Mumbet tour” in Sheffield and Stockbridge, Massachusetts by historian Barbara Dowling, working for the Trustees of Reservations, the conservation group that owns Ashley House, where Mumbet spent her slave years. The house was closed for winter – it being colder indoors than out! – but Barbara opened it for me to search for traces of Mumbet’s life there.

Ashley House is a comfortable, not grand house, with a big-hearth kitchen where Mumbet worked. An important scene in the book takes place here. Mrs. Ashley, prone to vitriolic outbursts, tried to strike Mumbet’s daughter, Lizzy, but Mumbet took the blow instead. I peeked up the chimney, stuck my arm into the baking oven, gazed into the small room off the kitchen when she and Lizzy probably slept (nearer to the heat than the icy family bedroom upstairs.) I climbed the narrow stairs that she climbed, bringing refreshments for Ashley and other white men who discussed their fight for political freedom from the British. Those were close quarters for a family of six, plus Mumbet and Lizzy, and Mumbet kept her eyes and ears open.

When we left the house and continued our tour, I saw the nearby Bartholomew’s Cobble, far-off Berkshire mountains, and the Housatonic River. They all presented themselves as symbols of Mumbet’s strength and courage, and found their way into my book.

Mumbet finally found her moment and, helped by an ambitious young lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick, sued for her freedom in 1781. He argued that the new state constitution declared that “all men are born free and equal,” and that included Mumbet.  Two years later a judge, citing Mumbet’s case as a precedent, declared slavery unconstitutional in Massachusetts, and all 5000 slaves in the state were freed.

A few miles away from Ashley House sits the imposing Sedgwick estate where Mumbet worked for two decades as housekeeper and second mother to the seven Sedgwick children. She saved enough from her wages to buy a small farm in the hills outside Stockbridge, and retired there to live with her daughter, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  Her house is gone, but I envisioned her, looking out over the Housatonic Valley that held a lifetime of memories. Her grave, among the Sedgwicks, includes this epitaph written by Catharine Sedgwick, one of Mumbet’s charges:

She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years. She could neither read nor write yet in her own sphere she had no superior or equal. She neither wasted time nor property.
She never violated a trust nor failed to perform a duty.
In every situation of domestic trial,
she was the most efficient help, and the tenderest friend.
Good mother, farewell.

Catharine Sedgwick became a writer and it is from her reminiscences that we know much about Mumbet. I ended Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence just after she won her freedom, but she lived long after that, and her life led to me many other African Americans of that era, and another book about worthy and under-reported lives.  I include Mumbet’s later adventures there, but you’ll have to wait until 2015 to read those.

I want to give a shout-out to Alix Delinois, whose illustrations capture the courage and commitment of Mumbet.  She was a victor, not a victim, and Alix’s richly-colored, dynamic paintings perfectly match the character I tried to describe in the text. Alix will be giving a talk on his artwork at Ashley House [] in Sheffield, Massachusetts on May 10, and we’ll be signing books together.  Do come and join us.

Gretchen Woelfle writes award-winning middle grade fiction, nonfiction, and biographies from her home in Los Angeles. Visit

See more of Alix Delinois’s work at

1 comment:

  1. Gretchen, Brava! for bringing this under-reported story to life. Many people, especially in MASS, where our daughter went to college, from FLA, are proud of the state's relatively "early" freeing of slaves. But no one who has ever mentioned this to me, know of Ms. "Mumbet", Elizabeth Freeman's 30 years as a slave story. Thank you for enlightening us. I agree about the artist who provided the illustrations. It should be a mighty fine event May 10.