In my Anti-Black racism course I an taking at UCONN, I learned about two famous Americans who I had never heard of before. Colonel Tye and Elizabeth Freeman, also known as Mum Bett. They both lived during the American Revolutionary War.
Colonel Tye was a New Jersey slave known as Titus. He was owned by a Quaker, who refused to follow other Quakers in educating their slaves and releasing them on their 21th birthdays. Tye joined the British side in return for his freedom and gold guineas. He led many daring guerrilla raids against the Americans, until he died of lockjaw from a musket ball wound to his wrist. He was such a successful and feared leader that many American patriots claimed that the war against the British would have been won years earlier had the Americans only enlisted Colonel Tye on their side.
When I was reading about him, I had to pause a moment and think, wait, he’s killing Americans. But then I thought, well, if I were enslaved by people who claimed to be fighting for their rights, and claimed to believe in the rights of everyone to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and I was given freedom in exchange for battling my captors, (and some added gold) — a man deserves to be paid for his labor), why wouldn’t I? What is more important? Love of freedom or love for a country that enslaves you and denies you freedom? I can’t fault the man. It wasn’t like he had the ability that all of us do today, to shape and change our country through citizen participation.
Elizabeth Freeman or Mum Brett was a Massachusetts slave who tried to prevent her mistress from hitting her sister with a heated shovel, and instead received the blow herself. She angrily left her home and found a lawyer to sue for her freedom on the basis that the Massachusetts charter said that all men were created equal. She won the case under Massachusetts law and was granted her freedom and her master had to pay her thirty shillings, along with the court costs. Her former slave owner wanted to hire her back as a housekeeper, but she refused and went to work for her lawyer. Slavery was soon abolished in Massachusetts.
Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s 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 airth [sic] a free woman— I would. – Elizabeth Freeman
Colonel Tye and Elizabeth Freeman, names worth knowing to understand our history.
Slavery has been called America’s original sin. Perhaps trying to abolish it at the founding of the country would have prevented the country from forming its union due to the deep divisiveness on the issue, but like other evil things, the price came due, most notably in the bloody Civil War. As we approach the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026, it would be nice to be able to say that the sin and its lasting effects have been wiped out, and while much progress has been made, I don’t see how I can object when someone points out that we are still a long way from true equality in this country.
George Floyd is another name that should be known by all in the the history of this country, although I know George Floyd’s mother would rather have him still in the living world alive with her than have his mural on a wall, and his name shouted in synch with the thrust of clenched fists.
And so many other mothers and fathers have no aspirations for their children to be famous; they only wish them safe passage home.
I will always stand for the Star Spangled Banner and the American Flag, but if someone were to kneel next to me, to bring attention to racial inequality, I would put my hand on their shoulder in solidarity.
Colonel Titus and Elizabeth Freeman played roles in where we are today as a county, as each of us play roles in where we will be in the future.
On Tuesday, November 3, 2020, Vote.