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Elizabeth Freeman was born either in New York or Massachusetts, the daughter of parents probably born in Africa. She apparently became the slave of Pieter Hogeboom of New York quite early. The only trace of her parents is Freeman's bequest to her daughter of two articles of clothing—a black silk gown given to Freeman by her father as a gift, and another gown that supposedly belonged to Freeman's mother. During her lifetime and even after her death, she was known as “Mum Bett” or “Mumbet,” a name derived from “Elizabeth.” Lacking a surname for most of her life, she sued for freedom under the name “Bett” and adopted the name “Elizabeth Freeman” after winning her lawsuit in 1781.

The proposed dates for her birth, which range from 1732 to 1744 are derived from an estimate carved on her tombstone suggesting that she was about eighty five ...