She was born circa 1719 to a free white woman and an enslaved Black man. Thus, Jenny Slew was raised free and lived all her life as a free woman, however, in 1762, while in her 40s, she was kidnapped from her home and enslaved by John Whipple.
She turned to the courts. Being born to a free white woman and an enslaved Black man made her case a historical one in Ipswich, Essex County, Massachusetts Bay Colony. Slew argued in a civil suit that since a child’s legal status follows that of the mother, she, also deserved her freedom like her mother.
Note that as an enslaved person, Slew would not have been able to approach the courts but at the time, history says that Massachusetts allowed enslaved people to bring civil suits to courts. So in 1765, Slew having had an attorney to represent her, went to court and sued her owner Whipple for her freedom, charging him with holding her in bondage illegally. She also maintained that because her mother was free, she was also free. The case was initially dismissed but Slew did not give up.
Whipple had argued that Slew had no legal right to sue him at all. He said Slew had been married and so could not sue. He maintained that her husband would have to sue on her behalf “since married women’s legal rights were subsumed by those of her husband under the doctrine of couverture,” historians said. In other words, as a married woman, Slew had no identity separate from her husband, and so could not sue on her own behalf. An enslaved person could appeal to the law, however, a married woman could not.
Slew’s case nearly did not make it to court because of this. Truly, she had been married several times but they were all enslaved men. That saved her as those marriages were not considered valid.
In 1766, a determined Slew took her case to the Essex Superior Court of Judicature in Salem, Massachusetts, which accepted to hear her case. At a jury trial, Slew won her case against her owner Whipple for capturing her “with force and arms,” and keeping her as his slave from January 29, 1762, to March 5, 1765, plus doing “other injuries against the peace” and to her.
Per law, a child took on the status of the mother. Slew’s mother was white so by law, she was not a slave. Slew was freed and awarded four pounds in damages. She became the first enslaved person to win her freedom by jury trial.
Slew had the odds stacked against her. Besides being Black, she was a woman, who was suing a white man and would be judged by white men who believed they were superior to her. But she fought and won not only her own freedom but the freedom of others.
Massachusetts was the first American colony to legalize slavery, and there were about 5,000 enslaved people there in 1750. But by 1790, there were none, according to historians. Slew’s suit was the first of many freedom suits that helped end slavery in Massachusetts.