An Elite Free Black Family in Victorian Charleston

Welcome to the last post for the History Behind the Story Series for Charleston Tides!  My sister is in graduate school in Charleston. When I heard that she was researching elite free Black women in Charleston around the time of the Civil war, I knew I wanted to request a guest post from her.  [Warning: There will be a few spoilers in the next paragraph if you haven’t read Charleston Tides. Just skip it if you need to and go on to the next!]

In Charleston Tides, we encounter a number of characters who are Black women who held a legal free status in Charleston long before the Civil War emancipated the enslaved.  These were: Jeptha, who becomes the housekeeper in Shannon’s household, Justinia Reed, who has been a midwife for twenty years (who is also Shannon’s father’s mistress), and Miss Millington, a dressmaker. 

The lives of Charleston’s free Black population are important to history, as well as fascinating.  In addition to the regular free Black community, which I was able to explore in the series to a degree, there was also a thriving aristocratic free Black community in Charleston. This historical topic is one that I wish I had been able to cover in more detail in the Torn Asunder Series.  But in lieu of that, I asked my sister to streamline one of her graduate papers which explores one facet and family in Charleston’s elite free Black history.  So without further ado…

The Bettingall-Tunno Women:

Navigating Charleston’s Legal Landscape Before, During, and After the Civil War

*Warning: some of the quoted language in this post contains historical rhetoric used in the aftermath of the Civil War which would be considered offensive today.*

I’m so excited to make a guest contribution to Tea & Rebellion! As a History graduate student at the College of Charleston and The Citadel, I’m passionate about bringing historical resources to life. What started as a pet project digging through faded papers in South Carolina Historical Society’s archives developed into a substantial research endeavor exploring Charleston’s elite free Black community experience in the period before, during, and after the Civil War through various facets of rhetoric and law.

For the purposes of this post, I explore the experiences of a specific community of free Black Charlestonians which was considered aristocratic in its day. I investigate changing norms, laws, and race rhetoric to reveal how Black aristocrats engaged, managed, and interacted with the law in a white-dominated patriarchal society in the aftermath of the war. In doing this, I narrowed down my scope to a family known to history as the Bettingall-Tunno family. The Bettingall-Tunno women’s perspective reveals the relative ease with which elite free Blacks negotiated Charleston’s legal and paternalistic landscape. These women embodied Charleston’s elite free Black pre-war experience, making the study of their court records and attorneys’ papers significant to the field of African American history.

Margaret Bettingall, a free woman of color, married Adam Tunno, a prominent white merchant turned planter in antebellum Charleston.[1] They lived openly as husband and wife, and this did not stun elite white society. Margaret brought a daughter to the marriage, and the couple had another daughter. When Adam Tunno died in 1832, his wife, daughter, and stepdaughter found themselves well-positioned in Charleston. Then, on the precipice of the Civil War, Margaret Bettingall-Tunno and her daughters increasingly challenged systems that began to value their skin color more than their social position. Later, in Reconstruction Charleston, maintaining significant real property, wealth, and a sense of agency meant that the Bettingall-Tunno women had to learn to maneuver the law when others tried to take advantage of what they perceived as race or gender ignorance.[2] Let’s take a moment to look at the world in which Margaret Bettingall and her family lived.

South Carolina differed from other southern states in its laws regarding marriage before the Civil War. South Carolina law allowed free Blacks to marry anyone of their choice, except an enslaved person, “even…white people.”[3] Black and white intermarriage occurred in antebellum Charleston, though this was by no means a typical experience of elite free Blacks.[4]

Regardless of race, marriage served an important societal function of rationalizing the patriarchy. Just as aristocratic husbands modeled greater American society, aristocratic wives represented all that a wealthy woman should be based on societal expectations and patriarchal prescriptions. A free Black woman’s ability to embody these expectations could determine the legitimacy of the marital union in the eyes of white Charleston. Even though the law recognized intermarriages between the races, social acceptance of interracial couples only happened under extraordinary circumstances.

Margaret Bettingall and Adam Tunno demonstrate a rare example of an interracial couple who found community acceptance both among elite free Blacks and elite whites in antebellum Charleston. Though recent scholars have debated whether their marriage was in fact legal, I accept testimony that they filed a marriage certificate in their church, and many of Tunno’s friends openly called Bettingall his wife.[5] Those in the elite white community who did not know Tunno well called Margaret his housekeeper in public, while privately referring to her as his concubine.[6] Reverend Johnson, Rector of St. Philip’s Parish, verified their marriage ceremony was listed in “Record of the Parish of St. Philip’s”[7] in defense of the Bettingall-Tunno union. 

Following Tunno’s death in 1832, these three women (Margaret, her daughter Hagar, and Margaret and Adam’s daughter) inherited real estate, enslaved individuals, and a significant portion of money from his estate. Critically, they also retained access to certain influential white men who would be key to survival in patriarchal Charleston. Tunno, as her stepfather, assigned legal guardianship of Hagar to Edward Frost, granting her a link with a white parent she did not have and fulfilling the requirement of the law for free Blacks.[8]

To manipulate the law and to experience autonomy, the Bettingall-Tunno women “understood that men were both a hindrance to and a help in their efforts to secure greater liberty for themselves.”[9] Their independent wealth allowed them to maintain agency, and their connections to white men permitted them engage in legal and business ventures.

During the Reconstruction period, a shift occurred from class-based consciousness to complete race consciousness.[10] Post-Emancipation miscegenation fears prompted changes in legislation. South Carolina adopted a Black code in 1865 that prohibited marriage between whites and Blacks, an unprecedented law in the state.[11]

Redefining marriage, though, changed race rhetoric completely. White Charlestonians carefully reconstructed the memory of marriage between Blacks and whites in pre-war times to benefit them socially in Reconstruction Charleston. In an effort to retain a social patriarchy post-Emancipation, former white enslavers and business elites played on fears concerning white women. Regulating interracial marriage and sexual relationships simultaneously placed control of Black bodies and white women back into patriarchal hands. Importantly for elite Black and elite white relations in Reconstruction Charleston, however, the elite free Black community retained kinship ties and blood relations that still held significance among influential whites after the war.

Maintaining a good reputation, for both free Black women and white women, remained crucial to receiving due inheritance from a husband’s estate. If a will became contested in court, a woman of ill-repute was not entitled to her husband’s inheritance.[12] Thus, the language used to describe married women mattered a great deal. Elite Black women who had been considered legally married to white men in Antebellum South Carolina, then, truly felt the weight of changing laws and race rhetoric.

Margaret Bettingall-Tunno encountered the changing race rhetoric when her late husband’s niece, Elizabeth Webb of London, England, contested the Tunno Estate on grounds that “mulatto” children should not rightfully inherit what a man’s white family should.[13] At every deposition, attorneys asked Charleston community members who recognized Margaret and Adam’s relationship what they knew of her character, if she had a good reputation, if they ate meals together or walked together publicly, and if Adam considered her his wife.[14]

John N. Gregg, an elite white man who lived in Charleston and knew of the Bettingall-Tunno alliance, accepted the legality of the interracial marriage. When Margaret’s attorney asked about the legitimacy of her union with Tunno, Gregg replied, “I have heard that she and Mr. Tunno were man and wife, she was a communicant of St. Philip’s Church and you all know that she couldn’t be a communicant of St. Philip’s Church without being the wife of Adam Tunno.”[15] Theodore F. Mitchell, in his court testimony to prove the virtuous nature of Margaret’s character, stated, “The relationship as I have heard was very close… close as she was the head and front of his household.”[16] Mitchell further elaborates that she possessed an upstanding reputation and that the community regarded her as “a good woman.”[17] Another testimony by Mr. Moffett verified that “there was no better woman in Charleston than her.”[18]

In pre-war correspondences between Webb’s attorneys and the Tunno family’s counsel, prominent Charleston attorney Langdon Cheves III, defined the standard for rhetoric regarding the Bettingall-Tunno women, changing it from “mulatto” to “alleged half-caste relatives.”[19] Cheves served as Adam Tunno’s attorney in his lifetime and continued to defend the Bettingall-Tunno women even as late as 1904. His support of these women appears dissonant with the language he used to describe them. The legal rhetoric that passed between both attorneys in the case between Webb and Bettingall-Tunno more accurately reflected the increased conformity to race rhetoric regarding all Blacks than the attorneys’ ability to exercise legal integrity. Writing in the post-war moment, and valuing their white client’s claims, Elizabeth Webb’s London attorneys at Sole, Turner, and Knight drafted, “We do not think for a moment that the testator was really married to these nigger women or either of them, and the document incorporated in his will, by which he made some provision for them, clearly suggests that the relationship between them (if any) were only that of concubinage.”[20] (Tunno’s will did not specify any relationship with the women of his family, only listing them as devisees of his estate.)

Marriage between Margaret Bettingall-Tunno and Adam Tunno, even though proof of a marriage license was unearthed, became in their words “in the highest degree improbable.”[21] The altering language used to describe people of color exemplifies the shift to value race more than social position or class. The Bettingall-Tunno union seemed “improbable” to a white-dominated patriarchal society in which Blacks were stereotyped negatively, thus measured by their skin color and piety rather than their business reputations, wealth, prestige, and connections.

The Bettingall-Tunno women’s responses to the lawsuit are seemingly lost, as only their attorney’s records and the court testimonies from witnesses regarding their characters survive. The fact that Langdon Cheves and attorneys at his firm represented them for so long suggests that even in a city with changing race rhetoric, the Bettingall-Tunnos found avenues to protect themselves by maneuvering within the system, a technique they had utilized in the antebellum years.

Surviving records illustrate that Cheves never hesitated to represent these women or their claims. A cursory search of his other clients, including elite Charlestonians like the Drayton family, reveals the speed and efficiency that Cheves conducted business for his other clients.[22]  That Cheves allowed the suit between Webb and Bettingall-Tunno to extend over the course of decades suggests that he knew the limitations women of color would experience in the law, and that the outcome would not be in their favor. He would wait weeks, sometimes months, to reply to letters from the attorneys at Sole, Turner, and Knight. Even though correspondences had to travel from Charleston to London, Webb’s London lawyers always produced a response to Cheves within a couple of weeks.[23] The Bettingall-Tunno women never relented in any part of the case, either, which suggests their persistent resistance to changing race attitudes.

Years progressed in Reconstruction Charleston, and as late as 1902, the court case between Elizabeth Webb and the Bettingall-Tunno women continued. Elizabeth Webb eventually won her case against the Bettingall-Tunno women in 1904.[24] Margaret Bettingall-Tunno and her daughters were already deceased at this point, and Elizabeth Webb died before she could receive what was left of the funds from Adam Tunno’s estate.[25]

Law, grounded in racism, became the basis for justifications that purposefully excluded on the basis of gender, class, and race in the decades following Reconstruction. Charleston’s elite free Black community experience witnessed unprecedented transformations both in law and rhetoric. Formerly engaging in unique privileges due to wealth, standing, and connections with prominent Charlestonians, elite Blacks now experienced contingent freedoms with increasingly more stringent social parameters.

Charleston’s legal landscape in the short period surrounding the Civil War reveals the ways in which elite free Blacks constantly adapted to maintain a prominent social position and find protections against race systems that devalued this group. Experts at manipulating the often-unfair law and pursuing personal gains, Charleston’s elite Blacks created a community that both utilized Black-white relations and circumvented a society that valued a white patriarchy.

Tara again – Thanks so much for sharing your work with us, Hannah! Please note that, while most everything on Tea & Rebellion is permitted to be used with a citation or crediting to the blog, the information in this post may only be used or quoted by permission of Hannah Cowan Jones, which can be requested at the contact tab, the reason being that this post is the result of extensive scholarly research.

There are no known photos existing of the Bettingall-Tunno women.  So I thought I would share some images of elite nineteenth century ladies below.

Photo Credits: BGLH Marketplace (10 Stunning Photos of Black Women from the Victorian Era – BGLH Marketplace (bglh-marketplace.com).


[1] “Testimony of Reverend John Johnson of St. Philip Parish” in Langdon Cheves Legal Papers (South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston).

[2] Elizabeth Webb, Adam Tunno’s white niece, contested his last will and testament in hopes of gaining her Black cousins’ inheritance; see “In re: Estate of Adam Tunno Deed” in Langdon Cheves Legal Papers (South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston).

[3] Cynthia M. Kennedy, Braided Relations, Entwined Lives: The Women of Charleston’s Urban Slave Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), 103. For a Virginia comparison to view South Carolina’s extraordinary legal position concerning marriage, see Joshua D. Rothman, Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families Across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 56-59.

[4] Sandra F. VanBurkleo, and Amber D. Moulton, “Moses Married a Colored Woman” in The Women’s Review of Books 33, no. 2 (2016): 8-9. See also Wilbert L. Jenkins, Seizing the New Day: African Americans in Post-Civil War Charleston (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 2.

[5] For the debate regarding the legality of their marriage, see Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, “The Bettingall-Tunno Family and the Free Black Women of Antebellum Charleston: A Freedom Both Contingent and Constrained” in South Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009), 148.

[6] Kennedy, 118.

[7] “Testimony of Reverend John Johnson of St. Philip Parish” in Langdon Cheves Legal Papers (South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston).

[8] See Adam Tunno’s Last Will and Testament in Langdon Cheves Legal Papers (South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston).

[9] Myers, “The Bettingall-Tunno Family”, 148.

[10] Fitchett, 245.

[11] Peter Bardaglio, Reconstructing the Household: Families, Sex, and the Law in the Nineteenth-Century South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 179.

[12] Kennedy, 81.

[13] “In re: Estate of Adam Tunno Deed” in Langdon Cheves Legal Papers (South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston).

[14] “Testimonies” in Langdon Cheves Legal Papers (South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston).

[15] “Testimony of John N. Gregg” in Langdon Cheves Legal Papers (South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston).

[16] “Testimony of Theodore F. Mitchell” in Langdon Cheves Legal Papers (South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston).

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Testimony of Mr. Moffitt” in Langdon Cheves Legal Papers (South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston).

[19] “In re: Estate of Adam Tunno Deed” in Langdon Cheves Legal Papers (South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] See Drayton Family Papers in Langdon Cheves Legal Papers (South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston).

[23] One such example is found in Cheves’ February response to Sole, Turner, and Knights’ November letter. See “Re: Adam Tunno Decd.” 7 February 1902 in Langdon Cheves Legal Papers (South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston).

[24] “Re: Adam Tunno Deced” in Langdon Cheves Legal Papers (South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston).

[25] Ibid.