I choked up this morning at the quote at the very end of this editorial from the Boston Globe:
It may never be a day off for state workers, but it is an increasingly important holiday for Massachusetts residents who take their stateâ€™s history seriously: Aug. 21. On that day in 1781, a young woman from Sheffield was the first slave to use the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, with its stirring language of â€œall men are born free and equal,â€™â€™ to win freedom in court. Her case was a precursor to a 1783 decision by the stateâ€™s highest court that ended slavery in Massachusetts.
Last Saturday, more than 100 people gathered in Sheffield to honor that woman, Mumbet, who took the name Elizabeth Freeman after her emancipation. The event was at the Ashley House, the home of Mumbetâ€™s owner, Colonel John Ashley. To help in her case, Mumbet had enlisted a lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick. Once free, she worked as a midwife, nurse, healer, and employee of the Sedgwick family.
The Ashley House and Mumbetâ€™s grave, in Stockbridge with the rest of the Sedgwicks, are stops on the Upper Housatonic Valley African-American Heritage Trail. Other trail high points include the site of black historian W.E.B. DuBoisâ€™s childhood home in Great Barrington and the Pittsfield house of the Reverend Samuel Harrison, a chaplain in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the Civil War.
â€œAny time while I was a slave,â€™â€™ Mumbet once said, â€œif one minuteâ€™s freedom had been offered to me, and I was told I would die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it, just to stand on Godâ€™s green earth a free woman.â€™â€™ The heritage trail and Aug. 21 holiday keep that spirit alive.
I think there are two reasons why Mumbet’s words make me well up, besides the fact that I feel a personal connection to that beautiful part of my freedom-loving state.
First, slavery is so unimaginably, grindingly, persistently evil yet it failed to crush her hope. How can that be?.
Second, it took so little to end that massive evil. It took a judge and a pen.
Of course, the judge could have that effect because he was part of a state constitutional system that put courts between laws and the people they govern. Our imperfect system is structured to allow the sudden assertion of human good.
Then and now when that happens – and we look mainly to the courts for it – rejoicing and tears run together.