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50 Years/50 Collections: “‘Betty Sayes’: Examining Margaret Aurelia Porter v. Reuben Reynolds.”

Author Lauren A. Heintz is currently a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the English Department at Tulane University.

I first looked at the holdings at the Amistad Center for the case Margaret Aurelia Porter v. Reuben Reynolds (1810-1812) in September of 2015. Over the last seven months, these files had lingered in my mind and kept pulling me in because there was a significance to the case that I was worried would go left unmentioned. I was worried, in part, because while the case file at the Amistad center consists of 14 handwritten documents including subpoenas, depositions, testimonies, and personal correspondence (in pristine condition and legibility), what is missing from the files is the ruling in the case. Despite this absence, what remains significant to me is that the testimony of formerly enslaved, possibly fugitive or possibly free, African American woman named Betty is recorded in full.

The summary of the dispute in the case is the following: Margaret Porter, a white woman from Maryland is bringing Reuben Reynolds, a free man of color from Pennsylvania, to trial held in the third circuit court in Pennsylvania. Margaret Porter is represented by her father Stephen Porter. The Porters claim that Reuben Reynolds has harbored and aided the escape of three of their slaves, three young-to-teenage boys named Caesar, George, and Emmanuel. The Porters are asking for $1500 to be paid to them by Reynolds. They invoke the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which makes it illegal to harbor, aid, or conceal fugitives from labor. The deposition for the case rests on two conditions: (1) whether or not the Porters actually legally owned the boys, and (2) whether or not Reynolds concealed the boys. Each witness who is called to testify, totaling six different people, is made to comment upon these two central concerns, and asked to respond to a set of five specific questions. Except for Betty, the mother of the boys and the only African American to testify.

Betty’s testimony begins with the opening line: “Betty sayes she was born in Trenton New Jersey in the family of Elizah Bond.” Betty then details her life according to the various masters she has been sold to: 5 people in total. The fourth person to own Betty is a man named Benjamin Braverly, who moves her to Maryland with him when he rents a Mill on the plantation of Stephen Porter, (the plaintiff in the case). In 1786, Braverly sold Betty and her child to Robert Barr. Robert Barr brought Betty into Pennsylvania and was planning to move to Kentucky. While they were en route, Stephen Porter overtook them and claimed that Barr owed Porter money, so Porter stole Betty and her child as collateral for Barr’s debt. Porter placed Betty in prison, yet Betty was released from prison and given to another man named Richard Hall in Pennsylvania. Stephen Porter then came again and stole Betty from Hall. Betty then states that Stephen Porter kept her “confined in his house for two or three months. After living with him for several years she ran away and has been from his services about eleven years.” By the time she ran away, she had five children: four boys and one girl. Porter sold one boy, 3 have run away (Caesar, George, and Emanuel) and the girl Stephen Porter still holds as his slave.

We must remember that the status of slave law and race law in 1810 when this case is being tried in Pennsylvania is the following: When slavery was abolished in Pennsylvania in 1780, the status of criminal court cases is that “the Offences and Crimes of Negroes and Mulattos as well as Slaves and Servants and Freemen, shall be enquired of, adjudged, corrected and punished in like manner ... except that a Slave shall not be admitted to bear Witness against [sic] a Freeman.” Since Porter is a free white man and Reynolds is a free man of color, Betty should not be able to testify if she were enslaved, which means that she may be free at the time of the case, or that her testimony is a legal aberration.

In either case, whether she remains fugitive or free, Betty significantly limits her testimony to highlight her multiple sales, and her coercive, and most likely sexually exploitative relationship with Porter. Under his confinement, Betty goes from having 1 child to 5. Another witness named Jeane recalls that Stephen Porter came to see Betty often in Peach Bottom when she was owned by Robert Hall. Jeane states that Porter “came to see her [Betty] often and would take her out at night till late and believes he was persuading her to go and live with him.” What my research has dug up on Stephen Porter is not flattering. Stephen Porter owned a hundred acres of land in Maryland, and he was a lawyer of some distinction, leaving me to believe he was middle to upper class in this period. According to the 1881 publication, The History of Cecil County, Maryland, Stephen Porter was a prominent lawyer who also happened to be in trouble with the law. In 1784, he was convicted of murdering a man employed at his Mill. The man claimed Porter owed him money, and Porter killed him in their dispute. When Porter was jailed, his friends got the jailer drunk and busted Porter out. Porter was caught and was made to pay a steep fine as well as turn his property over to the state, which was then reclaimed by his family. The itemization of Porter’s property does not consist of any slaves at his plantation. Coincidently, two years after this trial, in 1786, is when Porter first tries to steal Betty as collateral for debt. His theft comes on the direct heels of his murder trial and financial upheaval.

What are we to make of such a trial, in which the father of the plaintiff is a lawyer turned convicted murderer, who has stolen and most likely sexually abused a woman who was never “legally” his slave? What do we make of the verbal testimony recorded by an African American woman who is never meant to speak for the legal record? What, especially, do we make of these concerns when the outcome is unknown?

Because historical evidence leaves us wanting in this case, and because absences in the legal record leave me searching for more, I cannot, in many ways, treat this case as a fully complete exposition of a historical moment. From a literary perspective, Betty’s testimony is significant because her verbal account is an early and legally inscribed version of a slave narrative. Delivering her testimony as a type of slave narrative, Betty gives witness to her own selfhood from within the realm of the very jurisprudence that tries to deny a woman such as her the condition of selfhood. Betty takes advantage of this legally sanctioned opportunity to speak, and she tells her story as a narrative that begins with her enslavement, and defiantly ends with her freedom. Betty’s voice give evidence to her strategic ability to not only dissolve her fugitivity into freedom, but she opens up the means by which her children could reconstitute their slave status as well. The fact that we do not know if the boys were made to return to Porter, or if Reynolds had to pay the $1500 fine is unfortunate. But Betty’s words point to the very likely possibility that her children will continue to follow her strategic condition, to follow their mother into freedom.

The Margaret Aurelia Porter v. Reuben Reynolds records were acquired by the Amistad Research Center in 1980 through a purchase from C. D. Price, Inc., Autographs & Historical Material. The finding aid for the records can be found here.

Image from the Margaret Aurelia Porter v. Reuben Reynolds records. Images from the Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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