Thursday, April 3, 2008

Phebe Potter

Last night's post reminded me of my original goal for this blog: to keep a record of gems from the archives, particularly stories of women challenging what was expected of them.

Today's spotlight falls on Phebe Potter, a black woman (I am not yet sure if she was an ex-slave) who appealed to the Freedmen's Bureau in Alexandria, VA to enforce her labor agreements with several prominent white men:
Office Supt Freedmen
Alexandria Va June 5th 1865
Capt M P Fischer
Provost Judge

Phebe Potter (colored) complains that she lived ^as a servant one year with William Yeaton (a lawyer of this place) under a contract with him for her clothing + fifty dollars in money + that — although this was the year before the commencement of the present war — Yeaton has not up to this time paid her the mony he agreed to nor any part thereof.

— that during the first year of the war, she left Yeatons house + went to live with John Smoot (who carried on a Tavyern (?) [maybe “tannery”] in this place) under a similar contract + that at the end of eight months she left his service he [unreadable] if his [unreadable] to clothe her according to agreement + that up to the present time she has not seed one cent of money from him
She tales that Yeaton + Smoot both left Alexandria upon the occupation of the place by the Federal troops + remained away during the most of the time that the rebellion existed.

The case is respectfully transmitted to you for adjudication.
She also complains that a Mr Delancey who stays at the Marshall House in this place + calls himself a “Colonel” owes her $7,00 for washing his clothes, which he has repeatedly refused to pay her

Yours Respectfully
James [I?] Ferree
Supt Freedmen
I haven't been able to find much other information on Phebe Potter. The Freedmen's Bureau records are incredibly vast and only occasionally organized, so I don't even know whether she ever got her money. It will be particularly difficult to track her if she married after this letter was written.

I have been able to track down William Yeaton, John Smoot, and James Ferree, so perhaps one of them will lead me to her.

The most interesting thing about this letter is that Potter is not only asking the government to enforce her recent contract with Mr. Delancey - her contracts with Yeaton and Smoot date to before (or early in) the war. It is not clear that the Bureau had any power to enforce pre-war contracts, but Potter clearly thinks that it should.

It will be important to find out whether Potter was free before the war before I try to interpret what is really happening here. If she was free in 1860, her appeal to the Freedmen's Bureau is interesting because the majority of their work was with ex-slaves. If she was not free, but rather hired out her own time as a slave, this letter becomes even more exciting because she would seem to argue that contracts she entered into as a slave should be as enforceable as free labor contracts.

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