By Sabrina Damms | iBerkshires
SHEFFIELD, Mass. — Community and civic leaders, including former Gov. Deval Patrick, gathered at Old Parish Church on Sunday afternoon for the unveiling of a monument to civil rights pioneer Elizabeth Freeman exactly 241 years to the day that she won her freedom in court.
Freeman's story may be well-known in the Berkshires but not so much elsewhere. She was, wrote former President Barack Obama, an "American hero whose story has not been told enough."
Now a full-size bronze of Freeman by sculptor Brian Hanlon stands in front of the church at 125 Main St., which faces what was the home at the time of attorney Theodore Sedgwick.
Sedgwick represented Freeman in her fight for freedom in 1781 in one of the most important legal cases in Massachusetts history: It ended slavery in the Bay State and helped pave the way for civil rights. Freeman and a man named Brom sued for their freedom under the new state Constitution from the man who enslaved them, John Ashley, whose wife abused Freeman and her sister. Ashley was also ordered to pay them damages.
Freeman, who had been known as Bett, or Mum Bet, chose her own name that day.
"I want to thank all the members of the community, from Sheffield, from Berkshire County and beyond for lifting up Berkshire's Black side. It's exciting. It's been wonderful. It's been wonderful to have been your neighbor for 20 years now," said Patrick, who owns a home in Richmond. "It turns out Black people have always been here. What a shame that so few of us fully appreciate that. What a shame that so little of our history is actually taught and understood. And that's a part of why today is so important on her own merits."
Patrick read the letter from the president and former first lady Michelle Obama that noted Freeman never learned to read and write yet "she recognized that under an honest interpretation of our laws, she, too, was born free and equal. She endured abuse and humiliation. Yet she helped our legal system begin to recognize the dignity of all people. And in obtaining her own freedom from slavery. She brought our nation closer to fulfilling its founding promise.
"We hope that people visit this monument and are reminded of our shared responsibility to root out injustice whenever we encounter it. There is no better tribute we can pay to her legacy."
His wife, Diane Patrick, read a letter of support from actor Meryl Streep. Streep, who lives close by, described Freeman as "more important than Davey Crockett" in an interview a decade ago about her work toward creating a National Women's History Museum.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli said the monument came together in less than 10 months.
"We picked this date, because it was the actual date of [her] emancipation, and to have a beautiful day like this ... the community rallied around it and helped us raise money," said Pignatelli following the unveiling.
"We have an endowed scholarship in perpetuity that next year will be in every high school in Berkshire County, which was our ultimate goal. But today, it was really very, very special. And she will now stand for generations to come as a free woman on God's earth and which is all she really wanted."
Hanlon, who also sculpted the monument to Susan B. Anthony in Adams, wanted to depict Freeman as the "strong" and "beautiful" woman she was.
"What got me about her story, I come from a family of attorneys and judges, is the brilliance in her bravery to seek good counsel. And that is something that today it's a real thing for all of us to do what we needed. But back then unheard of," he said.
Along with the work from the Sheffield Historical Society, many of the speakers thanked the sponsors, volunteers, and advocates who helped make the day possible.
"Because of our community's outstanding generosity, we were able to establish a fund to support annual scholarships for graduating seniors throughout Berkshire County for many years into the future," Sheffield Historical Society President Paul O'Brien said.
"This is a true and lasting legacy for Elizabeth Freeman. The scholarships and the statute will keep Elizabeth Freeman's accomplishments fresh in our minds for many generations to come."
The Rev. Jill Graham of First Congregational Church gave a prayer to honor Freeman's courage and conviction that "shined a light on the path of justice, whose hope became action that altered the course of history."
"Lift Every Voice and Sing" was performed by Akilah Edgerton, Berkshire School's dean of diversity and inclusion, and the national anthem by Christine Biele.
Select Board Chair Rene Wood and board member Nadine Hawver read a proclamation from the board dedicating Aug. 21 as Elizabeth Freeman Day for pursuing "audaciously and against all odds" her freedom and providing an "example of what is possible when a single person, no less a woman, has the courage to seek that declared impossible."
Freeman serves as an inspiration for her role as an entrepreneur and property owner, and activist in the 18th century said Gwendolyn Hampton-VanSant, CEO and founder of Multicultural BRIDGE.
She quoted Freeman as saying, "If one minute of freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute I would have taken it just to stand one minute on God's earth a free woman I would."
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