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Elizabeth Freeman Way unveiled in Great Barrington

“I think that this is great for us in town," said resident John Horan, who lead a group that convinced the town to co-name the street. "Naming this [street] Elizabeth Freeman Way is about commemorating this trial and her courage in seeking freedom. This is also about remembering that slavery was very much a part of the Berkshires and Massachusetts."

Great Barrington — The town held an unveiling ceremony for Elizabeth Freeman Way on Saturday, Oct. 28, in front of Town Hall, adjacent to where the signs commemorating Elizabeth Freeman Way have been installed.

Freeman was born in Claverack-Red Mills, N.Y. around 1744 and died in Stockbridge in 1829. She was a slave who sued for her freedom and won it in 1781. Freeman won her case more than 80 years before the Emancipation Proclamation became law in January 1863.

Last year, on August 21, Sheffield unveiled an eight-foot-tall bronze statue and a plaque on the town’s Village Green paying homage to Freeman.

Back in April 2022, the Great Barrington Selectboard approved co-naming Castle Street—which runs alongside Town Hall—as Elizabeth Freeman Way. The courthouse in which Freeman sued for her freedom once stood where Town Hall is located now.

Over 100 residents and leaders of local organizations attended the unveiling ceremony on Saturday, Oct. 28. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

Castle Street has not been renamed. Instead, it has been officially co-named as Elizabeth Freeman Way.

Resident John Horan helped to lead a group that convinced the town to co-name the street to commemorate Elizabeth Freeman. “It wasn’t hard to do this at all,” Horan said in an interview before the event. “I think that this is great for us in town. Naming this [street] Elizabeth Freeman Way is about commemorating this trial and her courage in seeking freedom. This is also about remembering that slavery was very much a part of the Berkshires and Massachusetts. We need to make sure that we don’t forget that. We also want this sign to be a way to honor her and her courage.”

“I think that this is very important because Elizabeth Freeman sued for her freedom, and the town of Great Barrington is where she gained her freedom,” Multicultural Bridge CEO and founder Gwendolyn VanSant said. “She set a mass precedent for the emancipation of slaves in Massachusetts. When people see the sign, I hope they think about civil rights, including the long journey a Black woman took in our liberation. I hope they take pride in the Berkshires and the town of Great Barrington for their hand in advancing civil rights and liberation for Black people.”

Multicultural Bridge CEO and founder Gwendolyn VanSant speaking at the unveiling ceremony. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

“The grounds where the Town Hall currently stands [are] extraordinarily significant, because that is where the first slavery case was tried in Massachusetts,” Beth Carlson, a member of the board of the Du Bois Freedom Center, said in an interview before the event. “It was tried on constitutional grounds, which meant that Freeman’s case had an impact on the constitutionality of slavery and many other cases.”

Chris Himes, who is also on the board of the Du Bois Freedom Center, said that the co-naming of Elizabeth Freeman Way will help to raise awareness of Black history in Berkshire County. “This will raise the awareness of [Du Bois’] story, [Freeman’s] history, and how it’s contributed to where we are today,” Himes said. “I think that’s really important for people to understand. If there are people who do not know who Elizabeth Freeman was when they see the sign, they can now do a Google search for her. This will open up a new understanding for them. Elizabeth Freeman’s story is a local story, but it is also an important part of American history.”

Chris Himes, a member of the board of the Du Bois Freedom Center. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

“This is recognition of someone who deserves it,” Virginia Conway of the Macedonia Baptist Church said. “When I see the sign, what goes through my mind is everything she had to go through just to have to fight for her rights. It means something that she is finally being recognized as the first Black woman to fight for [her] rights. When people drive by the sign, I would like them to think about the progress that we have made when it comes to going in the right direction of freedom for all.”

Residents coming towards the Elizabeth Freeman Way sign for its unveiling. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.
Singer Wanda Houston and Multicultural Bridge CEO and founder Gwendolyn VanSant just after the unveiling of one of two signs for Elizabeth Freeman Way. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

Carlson added that the Du Bois Freedom Center is helping to develop an informational kiosk with information about Freeman that will be installed at Town Hall.

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