Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Slavery and the Making of AmericaPicture of slave women cultivating a village garden in Central Africa, Courtesy of the University of Virginia Library
Time and Place Slave Memories Resources The Slave Experience

K-12 Learning
Intro Historical Fiction Primary Sources Lesson Plans Virtual Museum Credits
Historical Fiction return to introduction
Lizzie's Letter Home

March 31, 1772
Please deliver this letter to: James and Mary, slaves on the Blackwell farm, Massachusetts

Dear Father and Mother,

I am sure you will be surprised to receive this letter from me, your youngest daughter Lizzie. It has been so long since I laid eyes on your dear faces-ever since that terrible day when Master Hogeboom died and Mum Bett and I were sent to work for his son-in-law, Colonel Ashley. I hope you are well. Mother, does your leg still ache in rainy weather? Father, is there someone to help you drive the cattle to pasture now that I am gone?

You must be wondering who is writing this message, since I never had the opportunity to learn my letters. My helper is Samuel, a kind man who is slave to the doctor in this town. He has helped Mum Bett and me so much-but more on that later. Samuel learned to read and write so that he could help the doctor keep records, and he agreed to write down my words for me. His idea is to pass this letter from slave to slave until it finally travels the 40 miles to reach you. My greatest wish is that these pages will arrive quickly, and that some good person will be able to read them to you. I remember that one of the Blackwell house slaves learned to read from the family's children's books.

Why did I take it upon myself to send you this message now, my dear parents? Sad events have taken place at Colonel Ashley's house in recent days. I know that news of such things is often whispered about among slaves of different households. So perhaps you have already heard talk that your older daughter Mum Bett was hurt as she defended me from an attack by Mrs. Ashley.

Mother and Father, I do not want you to worry about Bett and me. I asked Samuel to write this letter to tell you the truth of our situation, so that you will not be overly alarmed by any rumor you may hear. Most important, please know that Mum Bett is recovering from her injuries, and that I am unhurt. Still, it is hard to live through difficult times without you nearby. Always before, I would sit at your feet and share all of my problems. To help me feel that you are near again, I have resolved to tell you the story of our troubles from beginning to end.

It all began one evening last week. After I served the dinner to the household, I cleaned up the kitchen just how I had been told and asked my leave to go to bed. But that's when Mrs. Ashley got angry. She said I didn't clean the pots and pans the right way. Honestly, I've tried to be good and stay out of trouble. But Mrs. Ashley can be so hard to please! To punish me, she decided to take away my food for the following day.

The next morning, I kept quiet and accepted my punishment. I did all my morning chores as usual. Then I cooked the afternoon supper and served it to the Ashleys with all the obedience in the world. But when I cleared the table, I saw there were still scraps of dough left from the wheat cakes I had made. I was so hungry, and I knew the scraps would just go to waste. I decided to cook the scraps for myself, thinking that Mrs. Ashley would never know.

Mum Bett was sitting in the corner of the kitchen, working on her sewing. She warned me to be careful-she knew what could happen if I got caught eating wheat cakes. I thought I was being careful, but my back was turned when Mrs. Ashley ran into the room. She flew into a fury then, and screamed that I was stealing her food.

Mrs. Ashley picked up a heated shovel lying in the fireplace. She lifted it high in the air as she prepared to bring the smoking metal down on my head. I saw the shovel speeding toward me, and I feared for my life. Just then, Mum Bett ran over between me and Mrs. Ashley. Throwing her arms over my head, Mum Bett took the blow that was meant for me.

Mrs. Ashley left us then. Mum Bett's arm was badly burned, but I was the one crying. I felt so bad that my sister had suffered as a result of defending me. We knew that Bett should have a doctor to look after her burn, but of course we had no money to pay a doctor. As slaves, we wouldn't be allowed to call the doctor for ourselves anyway. So Mum Bett sent me to the doctor's house to fetch Samuel, who has learned about medicine by watching the doctor and helping him with his patients.

Samuel was good enough to come right away with bandages and a special liniment for Mum Bett's arm. He says the burn is healing well, though Bett will always have a large scar to remind her of the terrible attack. Mum Bett says she will make sure everyone else in these parts remembers it, too. When she goes into town she keeps the hurt arm in full view. Bett wants to bring shame on Mrs. Ashley for her cruel ways.

I was so sorry for what happened to Mum Bett-I told her it was my fault for disobeying Mrs. Ashley. But Mum Bett says that I didn't do anything wrong. If we were free, we would be paid for our work. Then we could buy our own food and I wouldn't have to go hungry. What is wrong, says Bett, is slavery.

Ever since the attack, Mum Bett has been talking more and more about freedom. She says that things are changing in these colonies. She hears the white men discussing liberty for all people. If they get their freedom from England, why shouldn't we slaves get our liberty too?

I hope that Mum Bett is right, and that we will have our freedom soon. I dream of a time when we can live together again as a family, without fear of whippings or being sold away by slaveowners. Until that day, dear Father and Mother, I think of you every day and send you all my love.

Your daughter,
Lizzie



Additional Resources:
Character Spotlight on Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett)
http://www.pbs.org/slavery/experience/legal/spotlight.html

"Form of a Petition" in THE PALLADIUM OF LIBERTY - Following in the tradition of slaves demanding freedom in Boston in the 1770s, black citizens of Ohio petitioned that the General Assembly of the state overturn laws that made race distinctions.
http://www.pbs.org/slavery/experience/legal/docs12.html

Note:
All readings created in the Historical Fiction section were reviewed and approved by the educational advisor, Thomas Thurston, Director of Education at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, Yale Center for International and Area Studies.

printer-friendly formatemail this page to a friend
About the Series K-12 Learning Feedback Support PBS