MAY 25, 1774

A statue of Elizabeth Freeman on display in the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Slavery and Freedom exhibition. Credit: the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Lancaster Hill and other Black Americans in the Massachusetts Bay colony, “who are detained in a state of Slavery in the Bowels of a free & Christian Country,” declared in a petition that they were born free just like the white citizens and “have never forfeited this Blessing by any compact or agreement whatever.” 

Seven years later, Elizabeth “Bett” Freeman heard that the new Massachusetts Constitution said every person had a right to freedom. The next day, she approached a lawyer, asking why the law wouldn’t give her freedom, and the lawyer filed a lawsuit. 

At the same time, Quock Walker, sued his former master, Nathaniel Jennison, for battery. After the local courts ruled in their favor, they pressed the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on whether the state’s Constitution applied to those enslaved. That challenge led to Supreme Court Chief Justice William Cushing’s conclusion that slavery was “inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution.” 

By 1790, the U.S. Census found no Black Americans enslaved in Massachusetts, making it the first state to abolish slavery

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.