My novel The House Girl tells the story of two women: Lina Sparrow, a lawyer in modern-day New York, and Josephine Bell, a slave in 1850s Virginia. People often ask me why I chose to write about Josephine and who inspired her character. (They assume, I suspect, that Lina is a stand-in for myself: I too have been a lawyer in New York.) I didn't choose my characters, I always reply. My characters chose me.
There's a certain degree of evasion in this answer (I don't know!) but also a degree of truth.The seeds of my characters were planted long ago, and I could no more unplant them than I could remove a childhood scar from my knee or the slight Massachusetts twang from my voice. I grew up in Stockbridge, an old New England town where history pressed in close on all sides. A rock-filled creek ran behind our house and my sisters and I regularly pulled ancient treasures from its icy flow: pieces of broken pottery, a silver spoon, and, one frosty fall morning, a necklace of intricately worked silver blackened by time and water. I truly believed in ghosts and forest gnomes and the idea that some nameless, future children might find traces of me in their playing: to aid them, I buried my own bits of treasure in our backyard (bottle caps, dolls' heads, blocks) and drew pictures on the wall in hidden corners of our house. In third grade, we learned the names of the town's famous historic residents and walked to the Stockbridge Cemetery to make rubbings at their mossy graves. I remember men with names like Sedgwick, Edwards, Bacon, Taylor, Williams, and one woman: Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman.
Many people, places, and experiences influenced the development of Josephine's character (and Lina's too), but if I had to say where Josephine began, I would say that she began with Mumbet.
Her story is this: Mumbet was born a slave in 1744, a time when slavery was legal throughout the colonies. When she was 14 years old, she became the property of Colonel John Ashley, a prominent figure in the town of Sheffield in western Massachusetts. One day shortly after the Revolutionary War, so the story goes, she served tea to a group gathered at Ashley's house. They were discussing the new Massachusetts state constitution and its proclamation that "All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights." These words resonated with Mumbet. A few years later she had particular cause to remember them: her mistress struck her on the arm with a hot kitchen shovel. It was this event that prompted Mumbet to test the promise of equality she had overheard those years ago.
She approached a local lawyer, Thomas Sedgwick, and asked him to help her sue for her freedom. Sedgwick was white, a Revolutionary War veteran who'd been expelled from Yale before studying locally and opening a modest law practice in Sheffield. He was also a close personal friend of Colonel Ashley's. Despite this, Sedgwick agreed to help Mumbet. On August 21, 1781, a court heard Mumbet's case. After an afternoon of testimony, the jury ruled in Mumbet's favor and she was set free. Mumbet was the first slave to acquire freedom via the Massachusetts courts and one of the very first to be freed in the new United States. In the months following Mumbet's release, similar "freedom suits" were raised until the state Supreme Court finally declared slavery incompatible with the Massachusetts constitution.
After her release, Mumbet became a paid domestic in Sedgwick's home. She moved with him to Stockbridge where she cared for his children and his wife, Pamela, who suffered from debilitating depression. Sedgwick's youngest daughter, Catharine Maria, became a novelist and wrote often of Mumbet, describing her as "the main pillar of the household." After Mumbet retired from the Sedgwicks, she bought her own home in Stockbridge, where she lived until her death in 1829. She was buried in the Stockbridge Cemetery, within the innermost circle of the Sedgwick family plot — the only African-American and the only person not a Sedgwick to be buried there. The Sedgwick stones' inscriptions are universally plain and restrained — name, birth, death — but Mumbet's bears a long dedication written by Charles Sedgwick, Catherine's younger brother:
She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years. She could neither read nor write, yet in her own sphere she had no superior nor equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust, nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper, and the tenderest friend. Good Mother, farewell.
Mumbet's story stayed with me over the years. I can't say why, exactly. Maybe it was the details: the hot shovel, the friendship between Sedgwick and Ashley, the depressive mother, the children who wrote Mumbet's epitaph, who remembered her so well. Maybe I kept the story of Mumbet with me because I later realized that, outside of Berkshire County, her name is largely unknown. She is not listed in any national historical registers or publications, such as Notable American Women or Merriam Webster's Biographical Dictionary. She is not mentioned in the National Women's Hall of Fame. By remembering her as I lived and traveled far from Stockbridge, perhaps I sought in some small way to propagate her story. I found her immensely inspiring, this woman who once said she would trade her life for just one minute of freedom, and perhaps others would too.
Sometimes people are surprised that I, a white woman from the Northeast, chose to write about Josephine Bell, as though somehow the history of slavery is not mine to imagine. The history of slavery is, of course, American history, and its impress remains in small New England towns as well as on Mississippi cotton plantations and Virginia tobacco fields. The house where Colonel Ashley lived with his ill-tempered wife, where Mumbet took that shovel's blow, still stands, as does the office where Sedgwick first accepted his surprising visitor. What must Sedgwick have thought, as Mumbet walked into his office that day in 1781? How did Mumbet describe her intention — that she wished to sue for her freedom? Did her voice shake? Did she look at him with eyes steady and sure?
This kind of wondering began when I was a child growing up in a place filled with history, and the wondering helped me to imagine Josephine Bell.
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Tara Conklin has worked as a litigator in the New York and London offices of a major corporate law firm but now devotes her time to writing fiction. She received a BA in history from Yale University, a JD from New York University School of Law, and a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Her short fiction has appeared in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology and Pangea: An Anthology of Stories from Around the Globe. Born in St. Croix, she grew up in Massachusetts and now lives with her family in Seattle, Washington.
Books mentioned in this post
Tara Conklin is the author of The House Girl