August 22, 1781

Jury Decides in Favor of Elizabeth "Mum Bett" Freeman


On this day in 1781, a jury in Great Barrington found in favor of "Mum Bett," a black woman who had been a slave in the home of Colonel John Ashley for at least 30 years. Listening to her master's friends discuss the newly ratified Massachusetts Constitution, she concluded that if all people were born free and equal, so was she. She found a young lawyer to represent her, and he persuaded a Berkshire County jury to declare her free. Two years later, in a case involving Quok Walker, a slave in Worcester County, the Chief Justice of the state's highest court declared that "slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution." Massachusetts had been the first colony to legalize slavery; now the legal system helped to end the institution in the state.

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