With Mumbet: The Story of Elizabeth Freeman, Harold W. Felton created a biography and a historical text for understanding slaves, their masters, and the beginning of the civil rights movement in the United States. Within the context of the times and the major persons involved in the events, this book documents the historical significance of Freeman’s life from the age of six months through her death.
Felton introduces his subject through listing her various nicknames and identifies “Mumbet” as the name on her gravestone. Later in the book, young readers learn that this name was derived from “Mama Bet,” which was the name bestowed by the children in her care. In establishing the historical consequence of Freeman’s life, Felton cites court records from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in which she, a slave, together with another slave, Brom, brought legal action to obtain their freedom in 1781. Then he identifies the major characters in the unusual court action based on the new constitution of Massachusetts, which provided that “all men are created equal.” As each character is identified, the historical facts related to that individual are given and his or her role in the history of that time is explained. Freeman was left with an infant daughter when her husband was killed fighting for freedom in the American Revolution. This information and other facts about her and her descendants are introduced through quotations from documents and letters that acquaint readers with the significance of her life.
The biographer goes beyond the documentation used in the introduction as he develops the five chapters constituting the balance of this book. In these chapters, the story of Freeman’s life takes shape when she is sold at the age of six months. Her character is developed and revealed through her interactions with her master and mistress, her sister Lizzie, and the Ashley family. Freeman learned about the new constitution of Massachusetts while serving the Ashley family and filed suit for herself and Brom in 1781. While she waited for the verdict of the court, she worked for the Sedgwick family, and after she was freed, they continued to rely on her tender care. Subsequent chapters chronicle the ways that Freeman served the Sedgwick family over the years and the importance of her independent spirit in several situations. The book closes with the legend on the stone that stands at her grave.