In 1781 Massachusetts, an enslaved woman called Mumbet mused on the nature of the new America. She had heard something about the state’s constitution and its stirring words “All men are born free and equal.” Although she had known nothing but slavery and abuse, she believed these principles applied to her as much as to any wealthy white man. Risking her owner’s ire, Mumbet took him to court in pursuit of freedom. Her case paved the way for the state’s anti-slavery laws, which were implemented two years later.
In Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence, Gretchen Woelfle and illustrator Alix Delinois illuminate this little known chapter in American history. Woelfle conveys the horror of slavery in simple language. She lists the properties a certain Colonel Ashley owned and adds, “He also owned Mumbet.” Then, we learn “The colonel’s wife, Mrs. Ashley, owned the sharpest tongue in town.” The repetition of a single verb tells readers all they need to know about the greed, indifference, and cruelty that allowed the Ashleys and others to enslave other human beings. Alix Delinois’s illustrations help build the character of Mumbet: an early spread contains seven portraits of the woman, all of which depict her varying moods. The pain and humiliation of enslavement range over her face; however, also present are the righteous anger and resolve that moved her to seek freedom.
One of the strangest ironies in early American history is the fact that the Founding Fathers, many of whom were slave owners, had no trouble reconciling the existence of slavery with the famous lines from the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal.” Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence celebrates the intelligence and courage of a woman who dared to question that contradiction. It is also encourages young readers to think critically about whom we include in conversations about human rights.
-Dorothy A. Dahm