Sunday, February 3, 2013
"Black Bloggers Connect: BHM ENTRY" BLACK HISTORY CHALLENGE - DAY 3: Paving the road to freedom
On day 3 of the challenge, I chose to write about two individuals that truly pioneered the way for slaves and their freedom. They were both successful in giving an, otherwise silenced, voice to the slaves.
Mum Betts was born a slave circa 1742, spending her young adult years in the household of John Ashley in Massachusetts. Mum Bett, or Mumbet as she was referred to affectionately, proved to be a driving force in ending the slave trade in the new Commonwealth of Massachusetts when she successfully sued for freedom in 1781, becoming the first African-American woman to win her way out of slavery.
Like so many thousands of others born into slavery, little is known about Mum Bett's early history, such as when or where she was born. What is clear is that in 1746 she became the property of wealthy Sheffield, Massachusetts, resident John Ashley and his wife, Hannah. Bett and a younger woman, who may have been Bett's sister Lizzie, had previously been the property of Hannah's family. When she married John Ashley, it seems, Mum Bett and Lizzie were given to the couple.
In 1773, Boston blacks organized a petition against slavery. It was turned down, but just seven years later the Commonwealth of Massachusetts completed its constitution, the first state in the Union to do so. In it was the guarantee that "all men are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights."
Ashley, by all historical accounts, had an even temper. His wife, however, did not. As the story goes, Hannah became quite angry one day with Lizzie, and went to attack her with a fiery, hot kitchen shovel. But in an effort to save her sister, Mum Bett stepped in front of Lizzie and weathered the blow herself.
The attack left a permanent scar on Mum Bett's face. More importantly, though, it propelled her to leave the Ashley home and seek the assistance of Theodore Sedgwick, an abolitionist, attorney, and future U.S. Senator, who lived in the nearby town of Stockbridge.
Betts hadn't just fled out of fear, though. Through all the talk she'd heard around the Ashley home about the rights of the Colonies, Bett had come to believe she'd been guaranteed some rights of her own. To her ears, the new Massachusetts Constitution extended its protection to all people in the Commonwealth, even slaves.
In Sedgwick, she found the perfect person to represent her. He was looking to mount a legal attack against the practice of slavery, and through Bett and another slave attached to the cause, he'd discovered the perfect test case. On August 21, 1781, Brom and Bett v. Ashley was first argued before the Court of Common Pleas. It took only a day for the jury to find in the plaintiffs' favor. Bett and Brom were freed and awarded 30 shillings in damages. Ashley appealed the decision but quickly dropped the case. While he pleaded with Bett to return to his home as a paid servant, she refused, choosing instead to work for Sedgwick's family.
Bett, who changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman, grew incredibly close to the Sedgwick family, working for them for several years as a domestic servant. She saved enough money to eventually build her own house, where she raised her family. Some 100 years later, her great-grandson W.E. B. Dubois used his own writing to delve deep into the terrible impact racism had on all sectors of American society. Mum Bett lived until her mid 80s, passing away on December 28, 1829. She was buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge.
Dred Scott was born into slavery sometime in 1795, in Southampton County, Virginia. His parents were slaves, but it is uncertain whether the Blow family owned them at his birth or thereafter. Peter Blow and his family relocated first to Huntsville, Alabama, and then to St. Louis Missouri. After Peter Blow's death, in the early 1830s, Scott was sold to a U.S. Army doctor, John Emerson.
In 1836, Scott fell in love with a slave of another army doctor, 19-year-old Harriett Robinson, and her ownership was transferred over to Dr. Emerson when they were wed. In the ensuing years, Dr. Emerson traveled to Illinois and the Wisconsin Territories, both of which prohibited slavery. When Emerson died in 1846, Scott tried to buy freedom for himself and his family from Emerson's widow, but she refused.
Dred Scott made history by launching a legal battle to gain his freedom. That he had lived with Dr. Emerson in free territories become the basis for his case.
The process began in 1846: Scott lost in his initial suit in a local St. Louis district court, but he won in a second trial, only to have that decision overturned by the Missouri State Supreme Court. With support from local abolitionists, Scott filed another suit in federal court in 1854, against John Sanford, the widow Emerson's brother and executor of his estate. When that case was decided in favor of Sanford, that Scott turned to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In December 1856, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech, foreshadowing the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, examining the constitutional implications of the Dred Scott Case.
On March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford was issued, 11 long years after the initial suits. Seven of the nine judges agreed with the outcome delivered by Chief Justice Roger Taney, who announced that slaves were not citizens of the United States and therefore had no rights to sue in Federal courts: "... They had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."
The decision also declared that the Missouri Compromise (which had allowed Scott to sample freedom in Illinois and Wisconsin) was unconstitutional, and that Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slavery.
The Dred Scott decision sparked outrage in the northern states and glee in the south—the growing schism made civil war inevitable.
Too controversial to retain the Scotts as slaves after the trial, Mrs. Emerson remarried and returned Dred Scott and his family to the Blows who granted them their freedom in May 1857. That same month, Frederick Douglass delivered a speech discussing the Dred Scott decision on the anniversary of the American Abolition Society.
Eventually, the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution overrode this Supreme Court ruling.
Both of these extraordinary individuals proved that if you believe in something and are bold enough to fight for it, there is always hope and you will eventually achieve what you set out to. I salute them as they are pioneers that put a historical dent in slavery and started paving the road to abolition.