02/19/2014 11:48 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

An Early Lawsuit for Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Right after the Revolutionary War, in 1781, a female slave brought suit for her freedom against the state of Massachusetts. It was the first legal test of the statement "All men are born free and equal" for the year-old Massachusetts Constitution. This is one of those little known stories that makes historians' eyes light up, and whets the appetite of storytellers like Gretchen Woelfle.

Mumbet's Declaration of Independence is a picture book for children aged six through 10, illustrated by Alix Delinois with bold, colorful art that reinforces this strong depiction of a strong woman.


There is a subtext here in Mumbet's Declaration of Independence: No human being is equal if they are owned by another human being. A written document, a constitution, changes the law and creates opportunity. The law is language that states right and wrong. It takes courage to stand up for what's right. The law is a tool that helps make things right.

We underestimate the intelligence of our children if we don't expose them to stories like this. And, make no mistake, if you share Mumbet's story with a child the first question you'll be asked is, "Is it true?" That's the value of nonfiction literature. The story has added weight because it is true, despite limited primary sources. Woefle tells the story behind the story in her Author's Note. You can also read about her research in this blog post.

The best way to implement the Common Core State Standards is to create rich learning experiences for children. History comes alive when the stories of real people who struggled to make our country a "more perfect union" are shared with children. When Mumbet was a slave, she had no last name. Upon winning her freedom she legally changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman. A small, but telling, detail worth noting during Black History Month.

Read a starred review of Mumbet's Declaration of Independence here.