A slave named Mumbet, who successfully sued for her own freedom in 1781 Massachusetts, is the subject of this powerfully told biography. Suffering under a cruel mistress, Mumbet seeks solace in the freely running rivers of the landscape and in her own mind. Woelfle draws clear parallels between the Massachusetts colonists’ discontent and the freedom Mumbet craves: “ ‘The King means to take away our rights!’ one man shouted. Do I have rights? wondered Mumbet.” Delinois’s thick layers of paint and vibrant palette infuse even the story’s upsetting moments with hopefulness, and Mumbet herself glows with determination and integrity. An author’s note addresses how many details of Mumbet’s life were lost to history, yet her story stands as a potent reminder that the freedoms that accompanied the American Revolution left many behind. Ages 6–10. (Feb.)
"'Mumbet didn't have a last name because she was a slave.' So begins Gretchen Woelfle's 'Mumbet's Declaration of Independence,' which tells the story of a remarkable figure in American colonial history. Known as Bett or Betty, although some children 'fondly called her Mom Bett or Mumbet,' she successfully sued her owner, John Ashley, 'the richest man in Berkshire County, Mass.,' for her emancipation, and once liberated chose to name herself Elizabeth Freeman.
"Alix Delinois's illustrations beautifully balance the intensity of this history lesson. The opening pages feature seven portraits of Mumbet in different states of thought and emotion. Pensive, determined and graceful, she wears a white bonnet (outlined by bright reds and yellows) in poses that highlight the complex and dynamic human being she must have been. Having overheard discussions of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which states that 'All men are born free and equal,' Mumbet enlists the help of an attorney, Theodore Sedgwick (father of Catharine Maria Sedgwick, who would later record Mumbet's story), to challenge her enslavement. 'I am not a dumb creature,' Mumbet says. 'I deserve my freedom.' Two years after she brought her case, a judge declared slavery illegal in the state of Massachusetts, which in turn led to the freeing of 5,000 slaves.
"Woelfle's narrative skillfully keeps Mumbet at center, focusing on Mumbet's struggles against her mistress, Mrs. Ashley, who did not have the right to own property yet 'owned the sharpest tongue in town.' Her verbal and physical cruelty toward Mumbet and Mumbet's daughter, Lizzy, challenges the common belief that white women were passive spectators of slavery's violence and the sentimental allies of slaves. Mumbet, a protective mother, is so eager for her own and her daughter's freedom that she uses the Revolution's egalitarian rhetoric to declare their independence. Woelfle's narrative and her appended notes and references offer opportunities for discussing nuances in the history of American slavery." The New York Times Book Review
With the words of Massachusetts colonial rebels ringing in her ears, a slave determines to win her freedom. In 1780, Mumbet heard the words of the new Massachusetts constitution, including its declaration of freedom and equality. With the help of a young lawyer, she went to court and the following year, won her freedom, becoming Elizabeth Freeman. Slavery was declared illegal and subsequently outlawed in the state. Woelfle writes with fervor as she describes Mumbet's life in the household of John Ashley, a rich landowner and businessman who hosted protest meetings against British taxation. His wife was abrasive and abusive, striking out with a coal shovel at a young girl, possibly Mumbet's daughter. Mumbet deflected the blow and regarded the wound as "her badge of bravery." Ironically, the lawyer who took her case, Theodore Sedgwick, had attended John Ashley's meetings. Delinois' full-bleed paintings are heroic in scale, richly textured and vibrant. Typography becomes part of the page design as the font increases when the text mentions freedom. Another slave in the Ashley household was named in the court case, but Woelfle, keeping her young audience in mind, keeps it simple, wisely focusing on Mumbet. A life devoted to freedom and dignity, worthy of praise and remembrance. (author's note, selected bibliography, further reading) (Picture book/biography. 5-8)