skip to Main Content

From the Oakland Vault: The Love Story of Dr. James and Henrietta Porter

Love is in the air at Oakland Cemetery! To celebrate this Valentine’s Day, HOF is releasing a few Capturing the Spirit of Oakland scripts from the Oakland vault. Discover the love stories of some of our sweetest couples and the exploits of our favorite flirts.

Mrs. Henrietta Curtis Porter (1860-1948) and Dr. James Reynolds Porter (1859 – 1960) were truly an Atlanta power couple. Dr. Porter, a graduate of Atlanta University, practiced dentistry in Atlanta. Henrietta Curtis Porter organized the Chautauqua Circle, Atlanta’s leading literary and social club for African American women, in 1913. She was secretary of the Gate City Day Nursery Association. She served as president of the Atlanta Colored Women’s Club. The Porters were featured residents in the Capturing the Spirit of Oakland tours in 2018.

JAMES REYNOLD PORTER AND HENRIETTA CURTIS PORTER
Capturing the Spirit of Oakland 2018

He is reading, she is setting up for a ladies’ tea. Both are chatting and laughing.

HENRIETTA
Oh, look! Dr. James, we have company arriving.

JAMES
Well, well, indeed we do. Good evening, everyone, and welcome.

HENRIETTA
Yes, come on down and join us.

JAMES
My name’s Dr. James Reynolds Porter. And this is my wife, the lovely and quite brilliant Mrs. Henrietta Curtis Porter.

HENRIETTA
How you flatter, Dr. James.

JAMES
Well, it’s true. I am but a humble dentist, and you, my dear, are descended from royalty. She is truly my Queen.

HENRIETTA
My husband exaggerates. He’s referring to the fact that my ancestor, was a young woman known as The African Princess, who was kidnapped on her way to a French convent boarding school. And then, she was sold into slavery.

JAMES
That’s a terrible, but true story – Yours is a royal bloodline and your mother was named “Princess” after her.

HENRIETTA
My mother was an amazing woman. My father, too. My parents were born into slavery, but my father bought their freedom, so I was born a free woman of color in 1860. In Alabama.

JAMES
Where we were married. What a glorious day!

HENRIETTA
(To JAMES) Now, don’t jump ahead! (To audience) He’s always jumping ahead.

JAMES
What is it you like to say? “Keep moving, a standing pool stagnates.”

HENRIETTA
Now he’s quoting me from our Atlanta Chautauqua Circle meetings. That was our motto. As you can see here, I’m setting up for a ladies’ tea and a Chautauqua meeting.

JAMES
Yes, she’ll be shooing me out of here any moment. (To audience) And you, too, I imagine.

HENRIETTA
(To JAMES) Oh, now don’t be silly. (To audience) That man loves to tease. (To James) Tell them your own story, dear. You were born to free parents, as well. (To audience) He is a remarkable man.

JAMES
Oh, I was just a humble dentist.

HENRIETTA
You are many things, Dr. James, but humble was never one of them.

JAMES
(To HENRIETTA) You’ve got me there, my Queen! (To audience) In truth, I was an ambitious young man and wanted to be doctor. In our day, dentistry was just coming out of the middle ages. It was a growing field of medicine and I saw an opportunity. We lived in a time of great change.

HENRIETTA
We wanted to be part of that change.

JAMES
And we were! We were what you would call, a “power couple.” My wife and I have so many things in common. Both born free in the south, both born just before the Civil War.

HENRIETTA
My father was elected to the Alabama Legislature and yours to the Georgia Legislature during Reconstruction. And my brother was a dentist, too!

JAMES
I guess you and I were destined to be together, my dear.

(Puts his arms around her waist?)

HENRIETTA
(To audience) This man is all kinds of foolish.

JAMES
Only when it comes to you. (Releases her and turns to audience) Of course, out in the world, we were very serious about our work and civic life.

HENRIETTA
Yes, and my husband’s activities were often reported in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper.

JAMES
In addition to my dental practice, I was the assistant Surgeon General for the GA National Guard and we were active members of Big Bethel AME Church where I was a Sunday School Superintendent. The origins of Big Bethel goes back to the early days of Atlanta. We loved our church.

HENRIETTA
Amen! And Dr. James had a beautiful singing voice. He played the organ at church and even performed in musicals there.

JAMES
Shall I sing to you, my dear?

HENRIETTA.
(To the audience) Please, don’t encourage him or we’ll never get out of here tonight. Now, did you know that Morris Brown College held its first classes in the basement of Big Bethel? The church was so active in the community, it was known as “Sweet Auburn’s City Hall.” It’s still right over on Auburn Avenue today.

JAMES
But you haven’t told them, about Chautauqua, yet. (To the audience) My wife is the real star of the family.

HENRIETTA
My husband really does love to exaggerate, but I do believe that my work had an impact on the quality of life for women of color in this city.

JAMES
Most of these folks don’t even know what the Chautauqua Circle is.

HENRIETTA
Chautauqua is an Iroquois word. The movement began near Lake Chautauqua in New York and was popular in the late nineteenth century. Its meetings were a combination of education and entertainment. Right now, tonight, you are all taking part in a kind of Chautauqua. The Circle I started in Atlanta was a women’s organization. And our motto was:

JAMES and HENRIETTA
“Keep moving, a standing pool becomes stagnant.”

HENRIETTA
We educated one another, were involved in activism, read the great books of our time. And we were always looking toward the future.

JAMES
Well, you succeeded there, because Atlanta’s Chautauqua Circle is still an active organization. Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin was one of many accomplished members. In 2013, the Atlanta Daily World wrote that founder, “Henrietta Curtis Porter…invested much thought, hope, and resolution into making her dream of a formal circle of scholars a reality…”

HENRIETTA
Yes, and they also wrote that our women were, “citizens of a nation struggling to understand concepts of equality for people of color and for women.” And those topics are still in the headlines today! Sometimes I wish I could have lived forever. I passed away in 1948, but I would have liked to march with Dr. King.

JAMES
I heard him speak, once. I died in 1961 at 100 years old! I lived through the eras of slavery, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the beginnings of the modern civil rights movement. The stories I could tell you – I wish we had all night, but perhaps you’ll come back to Oakland and take the African American history tour, someday.

HENRIETTA
Yes, and I’d best finish preparing for our Chautauqua meeting. We still keep up on current affairs – and you folks certainly give us lots to talk about these days! Now, Dr. James, before they go, tell them about the restoration.

JAMES
Oh, yes! Oakland’s African American grounds are being restored! Henrietta and I are thrilled to see the recovery of so many incredible stories and achievements by people of color. People like us, who helped shape Atlanta.

HENRIETTA
Exactly. This restoration helps shine a light on the vital and often heroic contributions that African Americans made to our city.  

JAMES
And now, my beautiful, brilliant Queen. We must bid our visitors farewell.

HENRIETTA
How that man does like to flatter! Good night everyone! Goodnight!

Keep Reading

From the Oakland Vault: The Love Story of Fred and Julia Palmer

Love is in the air at Oakland Cemetery! To celebrate this Valentine's…

read more

Digging Deeper: Labor in the 19th-Century Cemetery

This blog post was written by Ashley Shares, HOF director of preservation…

read more

A Carnival of Crimes

For a month in early 1893, a series of crimes occurred in…

read more

Marcy Breffle

Education Manager

Back To Top