Shenandoah County, Virginia (the portion that later became Page County, Virginia
November 16, 1916|
|Resting place||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 – February 14, 1921), 2) Joe Veney|
|Parent(s)||Joseph Johnson and Charlotte|
Bethany Johnson Veney (c. 1813 – November 16, 1916), born into slavery in Shenandoah County, Virginia, 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 Shenandoah Co, (later Page Co,) Virginia. A review of the Web reveals that more than 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 Shenandoah, Rappahannock, and Page County, VA. Most of the families mentioned lived near Luray, Virginia and were farmers, blacksmiths, masons, gunsmiths, etc.
Bethany (b:c1813 d:1916) along with her mother, 4 siblings, 1 uncle, and her presumptive maternal grandmother where owned by James Fletcher (b:c1778 d:c1822). Sadly the 1810 Federal census pages for Shenandoah County, VA are badly faded at the top and bottom of each page causing 4-10 names to be illegible. Happily Fletcher is listed in the 1820 Federal Census for Shenandoah County, VA with a total of 10 slaves. 6 of these people are recalled in Bethany's accounting. James Fletcher, the owner, was father to 2 sons and 4 daughters according to the same 1820 census. Bethany's account says that James Fletcher and her mother Charlotte both died around 1822 when Bethany was 9. Bethany and sister Matilda Johnson (b:c1806) were left to unmarried Lucinda(Lucy)Fletcher (b:1800 d:1876), the eldest of James Fletcher's children. Bethany's grandmother and presumed maternal Uncle Peter Johnson (b:c1805) went to Asenath Fletcher (b:c1802 d:c1831) who married David Kibler on February 25, 1827 in Shenandoah Co, VA. Bethany's brother Stephen Johnson (b:c1808) was left to Sarah Fletcher (b:c1802 d:c1885) who married John Martin Clizer on December 25, 1826 in Shenandoah County, VA. Bethany says she, sister Matilda, and Miss Lucy moved in with Asenath and David Kibler after their marriage in 1827. Bethany spent about 16 years (ages 14–30) in the household of David Kibler. Though she was owned by Lucy Fletcher the entire time, David Kibler actually had control of her, Matilda, and Miss Lucy. Sometime during this stay Bethany got religion. Ironically it was David Kibler's much younger brother Jeremiah Kibler who facilitated this. The Second Great Religious Awakening in America swept across the country between 1790-1840 and the Methodists were leading the way. They found Bethany in Shenandoah Co, VA. Mrs. Asenath, Bethany's mother, and her grandmother were all gone by then, but Bethany remembered their lessons. Bethany also watched and maybe helped as Mrs. Asenath bore 2 children and died, to be replaced by Mrs. Elizabeth Rickard Hockman Kibler who married David on February 25, 1831 and then died on August 22, 1837 after giving birth to 3 children. 3 days before Elizabeth's death, David got a marriage license for his 3rd wife Mary Ann Levell. Life all around Bethany was hard. The 1840 census shows gunsmith Jonathan Grandstaff (b:c1804) one farm over from David, and it is his wool spinner, Miss Mills, who invites Bethany to meeting. With no more clues, it would appear Bethany got religion sometime between 1830-1840 while between 17–27 years of age. When David tired of Bethany's religious fervor and sent her 2 miles away, it was may have been to stone mason Edward Levell (b:1790). By 1850 Edward Levell lived beside Jonathan Grandstaff. A Mr. Rickard was also a near neighbor to Grandstaff and they were both probably related to David's 2nd and 3rd wives. Also during this period, Bethany married her 1st husband Jerry. Jerry was the slave of Jonas Menefre (b:1780 d:1875) a neighbor to Sarah Fletcher Clizer and brother John G Fletcher. All 3 lived in Rappahannock Co, VA, "just over the Blue Ridge" in 1840. Jonas Menefre was thinking of going to Missouri, about 1843, when Jerry and Bethany married, but lost Jerry to the auction block before leaving. Jerry was sold "south" and it broke Bethany's heart. Menefre did move on to Missouri and dies there while living with David Clizer, a possible brother to John Martin Clizer. Like most long time residents in any area, everyone is related by blood or marriage or both. There is plenty of proof to be had of Bethany and her story.
"Aunt Betty's" childhood
Bethany Johnson (later Veney, because of her second marriage to Frank Veney) was born c. 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 a marriage ceremony. The couple eventually found a passing black peddler to speak proper words and promises over them. However, Bethany said they did not make the traditional white vows like, "until death do us part" because slaves were always at the mercy of their masters, and she didn't want to break a vow to God.
Less than a year into their marriage, Jerry was seized and placed in jail along with all his master's slaves. Master Jonas Menefre owed a legal judgement and his slaves were the most easily seized and sold assets he had. Several months passed between Jerry's seizure and his sale. When Menefre couldn't pay his debt, Jerry and the rest of his slaves were sold to a slave trader, Frank White. The slave trader was preparing to take them all South to be sold and tried several tricks to induce Bethany to come too, but she was wise to his ways. Jerry was allowed a last night with Bethany, and ran that night. After two days the slave trader arranged for David McCoy to continue to look for Jerry. Jerry stayed in hiding for a number of days more but when the futility of the situation became clear, he broke, and turned himself over to David McCoy. David McCoy rode away with Jerry, to catch up with the slave trader. The marriage was over. Bethany's heart was broken.
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), August 24, 2000.
- Moore, Robert H., II, "Frank Veney – The Other Half of the Bethany Veney Story," The Page News and Courier, July 1, 2004.
- Moore, Robert H., II, "What Happened to Bethany Veney after Leaving Page County? Parts 1 – 2", The Page News and Courier, March 30, 2006, and April 6, 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.