Cover image for Mumbet's Declaration of Independence
Mumbet's Declaration of Independence
Physical Description:
1 volume (unpaged) : color illustrations ; 26 cm
Reading Level:
640 L Lexile
Geographic Term:
Added Author:
Mumbet's Declaration of Independence tells the story of a Massachusetts slave from the Revolutionary era--in 1781, she successfully used the new Massachusetts Constitution to make a legal case that she should be free.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book J 306.362 WOE 1 1
Book J 306.362 WOE 1 1

On Order



"All men are born free and equal."

Everybody knows about the Founding Fathers and the Declaration of Independence in 1776. But the founders weren't the only ones who believed that everyone had a right to freedom. Mumbet, a Massachusetts slave, believed it too. She longed to be free, but how? Would anyone help her in her fight for freedom? Could she win against her owner, the richest man in town?

Mumbet was determined to try.

Mumbet's Declaration of Independence tells her story for the first time in a picture book biography, and her brave actions set a milestone on the road toward ending slavery in the United States.

Reviews 6

Publisher's Weekly Review

A slave named Mumbet, who successfully sued for her own freedom in 1781 Massachusetts, is the subject of this powerfully told biography. Suffering under a cruel mistress, Mumbet seeks solace in the freely running rivers of the landscape and in her own mind. Woelfle draws clear parallels between the Massachusetts colonists' discontent and the freedom Mumbet craves: " 'The King means to take away our rights!' one man shouted. Do I have rights? wondered Mumbet." Delinois's thick layers of paint and vibrant palette infuse even the story's upsetting moments with hopefulness, and Mumbet herself glows with determination and integrity. An author's note addresses how many details of Mumbet's life were lost to history, yet her story stands as a potent reminder that the freedoms that accompanied the American Revolution left many behind. Ages 6-10. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Horn Book Review

It's easy to forget that people in the North owned slaves, or that five thousand slaves lived in Massachusetts before slavery was declared unconstitutional there in 1783, meaning that many of the colonists fighting for freedom from English rule were holding slaves at the time of the War for Independence. One such enslaved woman was Mumbet, a "servant for life" to the Ashley family. Talk around the Ashley table about freedom from England led Mumbet to a lawyer in town and then to her eventual freedom -- and to the freeing of all slaves in Massachusetts. Woelfle keeps the spotlight on Mumbet and brings her to life as a strong, smart person. Using a vibrant acrylic palette, Delinois highlights the brilliant greens and blues of the Berkshires setting and allows the light to play on Mumbet's face to show both her humor and strength. Cruel Mrs. Ashley receives her own treatment; her face is nearly always contorted in anger. Though many have not heard the story of Mumbet before, no one who reads it now will ever forget it. The fascinating author's note and bibliography will make curious readers wonder why Mumbet's story is not better known. robin l. smith (c) Copyright 2014. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Booklist Review

Mumbet is owned by Colonel John Ashley, but she longs to be free. As the Founding Fathers work on the Declaration of Independence, Mumbet overhears the men discussing the phrase, free and independent. Seven years later, when Mumbet slips into the back of a town hall meeting about the Massachusetts Constitution, she hears, All men are born free and equal and she decides to test the new law. So she visits a young lawyer who is so impressed with her determination that he decides to take her case. Surprisingly, Mumbet won freedom for herself and her daughter, and her case led to slavery being declared unconstitutional in Massachusetts in 1783. Mumbet's still largely unknown story came to light through letters and journal entries written by her lawyer's daughter. Delinois' minimalist but highly evocative acrylic illustrations add depth to the sensitive, inspiring text. A great addition to picture-book collections of American history.--Petty, J. B. Copyright 2010 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

HOW DOES ONE teach children about the violence of history? How does one teach them to confront loss in the present day? Three new books take on these challenging tasks in the context of African-American lives. "Mumbet didn't have a last name because she was a slave." So begins Gretchen Woelfle's "Mumbet's Declaration of Independence," which tells the story of a remarkable figure in American colonial history. Known as Bett or Betty, although some children "fondly called her Mom Bett or Mumbet," she successfully sued her owner, John Ashley, "the richest man in Berkshire County, Mass.," for her emancipation, and once liberated chose to name herself Elizabeth Freeman. Alix Delinois's illustrations beautifully balance the intensity of this history lesson. The opening pages feature seven portraits of Mumbet in different states of thought and emotion. Pensive, determined and graceful, she wears a white bonnet (outlined by bright reds and yellows) in poses that highlight the complex and dynamic human being she must have been. Having overheard discussions of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which states that "All men are born free and equal," Mumbet enlists the help of an attorney, Theodore Sedgwick (father of Catharine Maria Sedgwick, who would later record Mumbet's story), to challenge her enslavement. "I am not a dumb creature," Mumbet says. "I deserve my freedom." Two years after she brought her case, a judge declared slavery illegal in the state of Massachusetts, which in turn led to the freeing of 5,000 slaves. Woelfle's narrative skillfully keeps Mumbet at center, focusing on Mumbet's struggles against her mistress, Mrs. Ashley, who did not have the right to own property yet "owned the sharpest tongue in town." Her verbal and physical cruelty toward Mumbet and Mumbet's daughter, Lizzy, challenges the common belief that white women were passive spectators of slavery's violence and the sentimental allies of slaves. Mumbet, a protective mother, is so eager for her own and her daughter's freedom that she uses the Revolution's egalitarian rhetoric to declare their independence. Woelfle's narrative and her appended notes and references offer opportunities for discussing nuances in the history of American slavery. In "Under the Same Sun," Sharon Robinson, the daughter of the baseball legend Jackie Robinson, also deals with the history of slavery but folds it into a story about a modern-day family reunion. Auntie Sharon and Grandmother Bibi travel from America to Tanzania to visit David (Sharon's brother and Bibi's son, who grew up in Connecticut but has lived in Tanzania since 1984), his wife and their seven children. The reunited family goes on safari in Serengeti National Park to celebrate Bibi's 85th birthday. Here AG Ford's illustrations of gazelles, lions, giraffes and elephants provide a welcome burst of energy in an otherwise sweet but not particularly dramatic story. At the end of their trip, the group visits the coastal town of Bagamoyo (Swahili for "to let go of one's heart"), where David tells his African-born children the town's sad past as a slave-trading post. "We are much more fortunate than our African ancestors who were forced to leave the country that they loved and had no chance of returning. We are blessed with the freedom to travel back and forth." Based on personal experience, Robinson's book introduces young readers to a family living on two different continents and speaking different languages, English and Swahili. Emphasizing the family reunion in the context of the African diaspora offers a somewhat romantic if uplifting opportunity to learn about a tragic history. AT FIRST GLANCE there seems to be nothing so uplifting about Daniel Beaty's "Knock Knock: My Dad's Dream for Me," winner of the 2014 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Book Award. Every morning a boy and his father play a game. When the father goes "Knock Knock," the boy pretends to be asleep until his dad approaches. "Then I get up and jump into his arms." But one day, and every day after, the boy's father fails to appear. The boy writes him a letter: "Papa, come home, 'cause I want to be just like you, but I'm forgetting who you are." Two months later, a letter from the father finally arrives explaining that he will not be coming home, and that from now on, the boy must use the advice in the letter to guide him: "Dribble the page with the brilliance of your ballpoint pen," the father writes. "Knock Knock down the doors that I could not," he says. "Knock Knock for me, for as long as you become your best, the best of me still lives in you." We read the father's letter as we watch the boy grow into a man, becoming a builder as well as a husband and father. Bryan Collier's richly textured illustrations and the lyricism of Beaty's text - with its echoes of spoken-word poetry - make this story of bereavement also a story of possibility and beauty. Collier gives the boy's world a three-dimensional feel: We see him staring at his father's hat in a collage that melds his home and urban environment against a receding blue sky. That sky disappears entirely as the boy grapples with his grief, only to reappear in a wider expanse when he grows up. Details like the hat and a set of elephants recur to symbolize loss and forgetting, while the texture of paper, the father's ties (worn again eventually by the son) and other objects suggest the persistence of memory. Although a note by the author suggests that the story is based on Beaty's father's incarceration, the narrative never explains why the father has left, allowing Beaty to address parental absence of any kind and speak more generally to the challenges of growing up when the cards seem to be stacked against you. "Knock Knock: My Dad's Dream For Me" is the most intimate of the three books and perhaps the one that best illustrates W. H. Auden's wise observation that "there are no good books which are only for children." GLENDA R. CARPIÓ is a professor of African and African-American studies and English at Harvard and the author of "Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery."

School Library Journal Review

PreS-Gr 3-Mumbet, later known as Elizabeth Freeman, was a Massachusetts slave owned by wealthy landowner Col. John Ashley in the late 1700s. When the British imposed unfair laws and taxes on Americans, town leaders met at Colonel Ashley's house. With the help of Theodore Sedgwick, a young lawyer "with fire in his eyes," they wrote a new constitution for Massachusetts, outlining the rights of all mankind, stressing the principles of freedom and equality. Mumbet overheard their debate and later visited Mr. Sedgewick. After she convinced him that these rights belonged to her as well, he assisted her with her fight for freedom in court, and she won. Adapted from Gretchen Woelfle's picture book biography (Carolrhoda, 2014), the vibrant acrylic illustrations by Alix Delinois create a feeling of depth and boldness, successfully producing a serious yet optimistic mood. Included is an author's note, which contains additional background on Mumbet's story and the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. VERDICT This account of a remarkable historical figure is sure to create further interest for children who delight in history. Recommended for both public and school collections.-Amy Joslyn, Fairport Public Library, NY © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Review

With the words of Massachusetts colonial rebels ringing in her ears, a slave determines to win her freedom. In 1780, Mumbet heard the words of the new Massachusetts constitution, including its declaration of freedom and equality. With the help of a young lawyer, she went to court and the following year, won her freedom, becoming Elizabeth Freeman. Slavery was declared illegal and subsequently outlawed in the state. Woelfle writes with fervor as she describes Mumbet's life in the household of John Ashley, a rich landowner and businessman who hosted protest meetings against British taxation. His wife was abrasive and abusive, striking out with a coal shovel at a young girl, possibly Mumbet's daughter. Mumbet deflected the blow and regarded the wound as "her badge of bravery." Ironically, the lawyer who took her case, Theodore Sedgwick, had attended John Ashley's meetings. Delinois' full-bleed paintings are heroic in scale, richly textured and vibrant. Typography becomes part of the page design as the font increases when the text mentions freedom. Another slave in the Ashley household was named in the court case, but Woelfle, keeping her young audience in mind, keeps it simple, wisely focusing on Mumbet. A life devoted to freedom and dignity, worthy of praise and remembrance. (author's note, selected bibliography, further reading) (Picture book/biography. 5-8)]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.