Shenandoah County, Virginia (the portion that later became Page County, Virginia
|Died||November 16, 1916
|Mt. Hope Cemetery, Worcester, Massachusetts|
|Residence||Page County, Virginia, Providence, Rhode Island, and Worcester, Massachusetts|
|Other names||"Aunt Betty"|
|Known for||Aunt Betty's Story: The Narrative of Bethany Veney, A Slave Woman (1889)|
|Spouse(s)||1) Jerry Fickland, 2) Frank Veney|
|Children||1) Charlotte E. Fickland (January 1844 – 14 February 1921), 2) Joe Veney|
|Parent(s)||Joseph Johnson and Charlotte|
Bethany Johnson Veney (ca. 1813 – 16 November 1916) is best remembered in historical studies for her autobiography, Aunt Betty’s Story: The Narrative of Bethany Veney, A Slave Woman (1889).
Significance of Aunt Betty's Story
The value of Veney's narrative is apparent. While Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (1976) and the Works Progress Administration Records Group, Virginia Writers' Project files offer sketch-like recollections of slaves in Virginia, according to Weevils' annotated bibliography of slave narratives, there are only 29 published narratives that cover the subject of slavery in Virginia between 1784 and 1865. Of that number, there are only three that deal with slavery in the Shenandoah Valley – two being from former Frederick County, Virginia slaves, and one (Bethany Veney) from Page County, Virginia. A review of the Web reveals that over 30 active sites offer links to one of three or four sites that offer the complete text of Bethany Veney's narrative. Additionally, a handful of university related sites hail Veney's narrative as essential reading when it comes to the history of slavery in the United States.
An overview of the personalities in Aunt Betty's Story
In addition to detailing her early life and experiences, Aunt Betty's Story mentions a number of personalities from early 19th-century Page County, Virginia. All of the families mentioned lived near Luray, Virginia (the 49th District in 1850), and were simple farmers.
While Bethany's last and second to last owners (John Printz, Sr. – born 1807; David McKay – born 1806) are mentioned in the narrative, a review of the county records leaves some uncertainties as to whether Bethany's first owner was truly James Fletcher of Pass Run. Taken into consideration as property and inventoried, Bethany and her sister Matilda were passed on to Lucy (a "spinster" and daughter of James) Fletcher (born ca. 1801) as a "share." Bethany's grandmother and "Uncle Peter" were given to Nasenath (also a daughter of James) Fletcher. Bethany recalled that Nasenath later married David Kibler (born ca. 1803 and a farmer with $2,500 in real estate in 1850), with whom they all found a "home" shortly thereafter. However, the 1850 census records and county marriage records indicate that Kibler's spouse (as of August 1837) was Mary Ann Leavill (born ca. 1816), leaving a question about whether Bethany's mother's owner was a Fletcher or Leavill. David, the son of Martin and Dorothy/"Polly" Kibler, died in 1873 of apoplexy.
While not an owner of Bethany Veney, another key character in the narrative was Jonas Mannyfield (Menefee), the owner of "Jerry," to whom Bethany was first married.
"Aunt Betty's" childhood
Bethany Johnson (later Veney, because of her second marriage to Frank Veney) was born ca. 1813 in Shenandoah County, Virginia (the portion that later became Page County, Virginia), the daughter of slaves Joseph and Charlotte Johnson. Writing of her early life, Bethany begins her narrative simply: "My mother and her five children were owned by one James Fletcher, Pass Run, town of Luray, Page County, Virginia. Of my father I know nothing."
Her mother and master both died when she was about nine years old. Veney and her family were split up, Bethany ending up with her mistress, "Miss Lucy" (Lucy Fletcher) and David Kibbler (Kibler) – whom Vethany refers to as a "Dutchman" with a violent temper. Miss Lucy hated slavery but did not know what to do about the way things were, except to be kind to Bethany.
After some time with Lucy Fletcher and David Kibler, Bethany made her first visit to a church. Though Master Kibler's brother became a Christian and started a meeting for people in the area, Kibler did not want Veney attending church, and sent her away to allow her new-found religious fervor to abate. He sent her to a man named Mr. Levers (Leavill), but Leavill allowed Veney to attend church. In a telling passage, she describes a scene in which Kibbler escorts her from the church.
Every night, old Mr. Levers would tell me I could go; and I did, till, in the middle of the meeting one night, Master Kibbler came up to me, and, taking me by the arm, carried me out, scolding and fuming, declaring that old Webster (the minister) was a liar, and that for himself he didn't want such a "whoopin' and hollerin' religion," and, if that was the way to heaven, he didn't "want to go there."
Veney eventually outlasted Kibler, and he allowed her to go to church regularly and she was baptized.
Bethany first married Jerry Fickland after their masters consented to the union and told them to simply be together. Bethany, however, wanted to be legally married and the couple eventually found someone to marry them. Bethany wrote of how the couple, however, was unable to make traditional vows – like white people – because their circumstances as slaves could result in distancing the couple at the will of the owners.
A few months into their marriage, Jerry was arrested. He escaped and ran away but couldn't evade capture. His escape, attempts to avoid detection and subsequent capture seemed to have broken Jerry. He was sent away and Bethany and Jerry never saw each other again.
While still at David Kibler's, Bethany became a mother with her first child, Charlotte, and immediately began to worry about being separated from her. She writes:
My dear white lady, in your pleasant home made joyous by the tender love of husband and children all your own, you can never understand the slave mother's emotions as she clasps her new-born child, and knows that a master's word can at any moment take it from her embrace; and when, as was mine, that child is a girl, and from her own experience she sees its almost certain doom is to minister to the unbridled lust of the slave-owner, and feels that the law holds over her no protecting arm, it is not strange that, rude and uncultured as I was, I felt all this, and would have been glad if we could have died together there and then.
She tried to find a new location away from Master Kibler. She explored her options through Miss Lucy and found someone to buy her – a local man named John Prince (Printz).
Second marriage and freedom
During her time under the ownership of John Printz (into the 1850s), Bethany met and married Frank Veney. Though only Bethany's second marriage, according to Frank Veney, this was his seventh marriage. It was also during this time that Bethany was sold to David McKay and employed, with McKay's permission, by George James Adams. Though in the area on business in copper-mining operations, Adams was also an activist in the anti-slavery movement in Rhode Island. He eventually purchased Bethany and her second child, Joe Veney, and sent them to his home in Providence, Rhode Island. This also resulted in the permanent separation with Frank Veney.
Though Bethany could finally enjoy freedom, it was also during her stay in Providence that her son, Joe, died.
After Aunt Betty's Story
Though Aunt Betty's Story ends, she lived another 26 years beyond the conclusion of the autobiography.
At the opening of the Civil War, G.J. Adams told Bethany that “she was at liberty to go wherever she pleased.” Veney then went to Worcester, Massachusetts, and one of the first things she recalled doing was making gruel and carrying it to the sick Union soldiers in Brookfield. During this time, she also worked as a laundress and earned extra money by going door to door and selling a bluing solution (made to brighten clothing). She apparently had a thriving business in selling this solution to housewives of her neighborhood and “if one of her customers moved to another part of Worcester it was her custom to carry the bluing to them.”
After the Civil War, Aunt Betty returned to Virginia several times and brought 16 relatives to Worcester with her, including her daughter Charlotte, who had married Aaron Jackson since Bethany's departure from Page County.
At 1 p.m. on November 16, 1916, Bethany Veney, at the age of 103 years, died at the home of her daughter, Charlotte, at 33 Winfield Street in Worcester. It was said that she “retained her faculties, except her eyesight, in a wonderful manner. Her memory was keen, not in the manner of old persons, in remembering dates of long ago, but she kept herself posted on the topics of interest of today and although she could not read because of her eyesight in later years, she kept posted by asking questions.”
Bethany’s daughter, Charlotte, died on February 14, 1921, at a home that she had moved to since the death of her mother, at 89 Mayfield Street in Worcester. She was buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery near her mother.
- Documenting the American South
- Clark, Edward, Black Writers in New England. A bibliography, with biographical notes, of books by and about Afro-American writers associated with New England in the Collection of Afro-American Literature, Boston: National Park Service, 1985.
- Moore, Robert H., II, "Clarifying a few details in the narrative of Bethany Veney," The Page News and Courier (Luray, Virginia), 24 August 2000.
- Moore, Robert H., II, "Frank Veney – The Other Half of the Bethany Veney Story," The Page News and Courier, 1 July 2004.
- Moore, Robert H., II, "What Happened to Bethany Veney after Leaving Page County?
Parts 1 – 2," The Page News and Courier, 30 March 2006 and 6 April 2006.
- Bethany Veney The Narrative of Bethany Veney: A Slave Woman. Worcester, Mass: [s.n.] ; (Boston : Press of Geo. H. Ellis), 1889.
- "Beyond 'Aunt Betty's Story'" by Robert H. Moore, II at Too Long Forgotten.
- "Frank Veney... the other half of the Bethany Veney Story" by Robert H. Moore, II at Too Long Forgotten.
- Bethany Johnson Veney at Find A Grave
- McCarthy, B. Eugene; Doughton, Thomas L. (2007). From bondage to belonging: the Worcester slave narratives. University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 1-55849-623-8. http://books.google.com/books?id=0opv0-z04C8C&pg=PA4.