Black History Month: Massachusetts Slave
Mum Bett was among the first black slaves in Massachusetts awarded freedom in court under the 1780 constitution, and a decision that slavery was illegal. Her county court case, decided in August 1781, was cited as a precedent in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court appeal review of the Quock Walker case. When the state Supreme Court upheld Walker’s freedom under the constitution, it was considered to have informally ended slavery in Massachusetts.
When Elizabeth Freeman was nearly 70 years old, Susan Ridley Sedgwick painted a miniature portrait of her in watercolor on ivory. Sedgwick was the young wife of Theodore Sedgwick, Jr., whose father had represented Freeman in her claim for freedom from slavery under the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.
Illegally Enslaved Woman
Jenny Slew was born circa 1719 to a free white woman and an enslaved black man. That fact would become the core of an historical legal case forty-six years later in Ipswich, Essex County, Massachusetts Bay Colony. Jenny contended that her parents had married and established a home and family. Jenny Slew had been raised free and lived all her life as a free woman, but in 1762 she was kidnapped and enslaved by John Whipple.
In most of the colonies, she would not have been able to turn to the law for help. As a slave, she would have been banned from the courts. However, by that time in Massachusetts an enslaved person could bring a civil suit.
African American Poet
The baby whose slavery name would become Lucy Terry was born in Africa around 1724. Slave traders sold her in Rhode Island – which dominated the colonial American slave trade – in about 1730. During the period when Lucy arrived, the rum-slave-molasses traffic from Newport or Bristol to Africa and the West Indies was in its early development.
It is highly likely that Lucy was taken from Rhode Island to Enfield, Connecticut, which would explain why she was known as Lucy Terry. Since most blacks weren’t named until they were purchased and transported to their owners, Lucy probably came to be called Terry through an association with Samuel Terry, one of the early settlers and founders of Enfield.
Slave in New Amsterdam
Dorothy Creole was one of the first black women in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan. She was African, but she came from a world where West Africans and Europeans had been trading for two centuries and their cultures had mixed. She may have spoken Spanish or Portuguese, in addition to her African language. The name Creole may have begun as a descriptive term used by Europeans, and later developed into a surname.
Dorothy might have arrived in 1627, when records indicate that three enslaved women were brought into New Amsterdam, which was little more than a muddy village with thirty wooden houses and a population of less than two hundred people. All slaves brought into the colony during its early years were the property of the Dutch West India Company, the founder and owner of the Colony.
First African Woman to Win Her Freedom in Court
Elizabeth Key was the first woman of African ancestry in the American colonies to sue for her freedom from slavery and win. Elizabeth Key won her freedom and that of her infant son on July 21, 1656 in the colony of Virginia, in one of the earliest freedom suits in the colonies. She sued based on the fact that her father was an Englishman and that she was a baptized Christian.
Born in Warwick County, Virginia in 1630, Elizabeth Key was the illegitimate daughter of an enslaved black mother and a white English planter father, Thomas Key, who was also a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. She spent the first several years of her life with her mother.