In Season 3, Episode 5, of Not Even Past, host Brendan Wolfe marvels at the power of Bethany Veney‘s writing, which tells the story of her life in slavery, the time she foiled an attempt to sell her, and her journey to freedom. Wolfe and producer Miranda Bennett also talk to Jobie Hill, an architectural historian who reads such narratives in order to better understand the spaces in which enslaved people like Veney lived their lives.
Click below to read a transcript of the show.
IMAGE: This portrait of Bethany Veney serves as the frontispiece for her 1889 autobiography. (HathiTrust Digital Library)
Brendan Wolfe: Bethany Veney was an enslaved woman who labored in the Shenandoah Valley. We know of her largely because—in her later years, after she had become free—she wrote a narrative of her life.
And through that narrative, we can hear Bethany Veney’s voice.
It is, shall we say, no nonsense.
At one point she notes that she gave birth to a daughter. Nothing sentimental. She just writes, “Several months passed, and I became a mother.”
Then she addresses the reader. Now, she’s not interested in talking to some abstract general reader. Instead, she addresses the particularkind of person she expects might be reading her book—
And reading it, she seems to say, with a tinge of moral self-congratulation. Or maybe just moral naiveté.
“My dear white lady,” she writes, “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 newborn 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.”
That was a long, nineteenth-century sentence. So it might be helpful to say that again. Upon the birth of her child—a little girl named Charlotte—Veney wondered whether it would have been best if they had both just died.
And that was before she was sold away from her child. Before she was put on the auction block and possibly sent to the Deep South.
Although Veney’s narrative makes one thing very clear—
There was noway she was going to let that happen.
I’m Brendan Wolfe, editor of Encyclopedia Virginia at Virginia Humanities. On this episode of NOT EVEN PAST, we consider the life of Bethany Veney. Unlike Henry Martin, whom we meet earlier this season, she didleave behind her words and stories.
And they are powerful—sharply cutting away the two-plus centuries that separate us.
She tells us of her owner, Miss Lucy, who lived in the household of Lucy’s brother-in-law. He frequently mistreated Veney.
“Master Kibbler was still hard and cruel,” Veney writes, “and I was in constant trouble. Miss Lucey was kind as ever, and it grieved her to see me unhappy.”
Maybe it would be best just to sell Veney. Maybe then she “should not be so wretched.” That was Miss Lucy’s solution. One senses that Veney’s solution might have been to encourage her brother-in-law not to beat her.
White men such as Master Kibbler were a constant danger.
Of course, white men provided their own set of challenges.
And yet Veney appeared to meet them with courage and cunning.
Miss Lucy found a suitable buyer, a man named John Printz. Before consummating the deal, Mr. Printz asked if Veney would promise not to steal from him.
The black woman scoffs.
“I answered that, if I worked for him, I ought to expect him to give me enough to eat, and then I should have no need to steal.”
She told him he would hardly want her stealing the neighbors’ chickens while she worked for him—
Would you, Master John?
Bethany Veney was—especially given her position—a master negotiator. The deal went through. She even convinced Printz to purchase little Charlotte.
And all was well for a time. At least until it wasn’t.
Bethany Veney was born enslaved on a farm in Luray, in what is now Page County. That was about 1815. She was one of five children and never knew her father. Her mother died when she was nine.
Her owner died about the same time and Miss Lucy was his daughter. Veney and Veney’s sister Matilda both went to live with Miss Lucy who, in turn, went to live with her sister and brother-in-law.
It was here that Bethany Veney experienced what it meant to be enslaved. The violence, the alienation, the lack of control. Your life was not your own. Which means at times it seemed not worth having at all.
Veney became a Christian and she married a man named Jerry Fickland. Jerry had a different owner, though—a man named Menefee who lived on the other side of the Blue Ridge. When his debts got bad, Menefee arranged to sell Jerry away.
This meant sending him to north to Loudoun County and confining him in a slave jail until his sale. Then he was chained together with other men, women, and children and marched south.
On the way, the trader encouraged Jerry to fetch his wife. He promised that the two would remain together. Veney warned her husband not to trust the trader and Jerry fled to the mountains. The picture Veney paints of her husband at this moment is devastating. “The fasting and the fear,” she writes, “had completely cowed and broken whatever manhood or brute courage” he might have once possessed.
In time, the slave catcher found him, and when the white man called, Jerry “mutely obeyed.”
Veney and her husband never saw each other again.
As it happens, Veney was pregnant with Charlotte this whole time. Veney never knew her own father and Charlotte never knew hers.
Bethany Veney was owned by John Printz for a while and it was good. As good as good gets when you are the property of another man.
But then John Printz sold her to the same trader who had taken away her husband.
Printz, we can be sure, did not see this as a betrayal. It was just business. He needed the cash.
But for Bethany Veney this was an existential threat. It could mean permanent separation from her daughter Charlotte. It could mean a short hard life in the cotton fields of the Deep South. It could mean putting her at the mercy of masters she did not know—
Masters whose unbridled lust she did know.
McCoy was the name of the trader, and he intended to take Veney to Richmond and put her on the block.
“I was well known in all the parts around as a faithful, hard-working woman when well-treated,” Veney later wrote, “but ugly and willful if abused beyond a certain point.”
Veney had seen that look in her husband’s eyes. The way he had “mutely obeyed.” And she vowed not to be that way herself.
“McCoy had bought me away from my child. And now, he thought, he could sell me, if carried to Richmond, at a good advantage. I did not think so. And I determined, if possible, to disappoint him.”
She arrived in Richmond and was shut up in a jail. In order to impress potential buyers, a dressmaker clothed her in what she remembered as “the gaudiest and most striking attire conceivable.” She literally wore pink bows, a kind of ironic joke on the cruelty of her fate.
Courage and cunning. That was how Bethany Veney had always gotten by and how she got by now.
Relying on tricks she had learned from old women, she ingested a poison that made her feverish and bilious. Her tongue was coated, her limbs swollen. She adopted an attitude to match, or at least as much as she dared.
The ruse worked, and soon Bethany Veney was back in the Shenandoah Valley. More importantly, she was back with her daughter.
Bethany Veney’s owner, the part-time trader McCoy, accepted a job overseeing a road construction gang of free black men. He assigned Veney to cook for them. One of those laborers, Frank Veney, became her second husband. In 1915 Frank Veney told the local newspaper that over the course of his life he had married twenty-five women, of whom he could remember the names of eleven. Bethany Veney, he said, was number nine.
The Veneys negotiated with her owner so that she could hire out to work as she wished. She paid McCoy $30 per year and kept the rest for herself. They rented a house on the mountain. They had a son.
But then McCoy fell into debt. White people’s money problems were a constant fear. Debts led to sales, like the one that had taken her first husband away. God forbid you found yourself owned by a man like McCoy, who liked to gamble.
Luckily for Veney, she was working just then for two white northern men. She convinced them to purchase her and her son and take her north.
They left for Rhode Island in December of 1858 and she fully intended to return—for her husband, for her daughter and her daughter’s husband.
Then John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry happened. Then the Civil War. Going south was too dangerous.
After three years, Frank Veney moved on to wife number 10. Her son died.
But Bethany Veney moved to Massachusetts and after the war reunited with Charlotte. And in 1889 she dictated the story of her life to a white woman. Perhaps the very woman she addressed directly—
“My dear white lady, in your pleasant home made joyous by the tender love of husband and children all your own—”
What do you really know about this life, this world?
Let me tell you the truth, Bethany Veney seemed to say. And let me tell you in my own voice.
Bethany Veney’s narrative is part of a history of antebellum slave narratives that were usually written by formerly enslaved people who’d escaped to freedom and then told their own stories.
In the 1920s and ’30s there was renewed effort to capture the stories of the thousands of formerly enslaved people whose stories had not been published.
Jobie Hill: It started in the 1920s and was being done by black universities and colleges. These people were already taking an interest in their own history and trying to document it.
BW: This is Jobie Hill is a preservation architect specializing in slave houses. In addition to the slaves narratives that historically black colleges and universities collected, the federal government got involved in sponsoring interviews. The Works Progress Administration was founded in 1935 to transition millions of unemployed people on Depression-era relief rolls back to work.
As part of the Works Progress Administration’s, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was assigned to create state-level initiatives to provide employment for writers. In Virginia and many other states that included sending writers out to conduct interviews with more than 300 former slaves.
JH: They were sent off to collect American life: histories and stories from people.
There’s a lot of background to that kinda things you have to know about how that was all set up. Just in general the WPA discriminated against black workers. Only half of the states employed black interviewers. Florida and Virginia had primarily black workers. They were the only two units that did.
BW: So tell us the difference between in 1937 or 1938 a white interviewer or a black interviewer going out into rural Virginia and knocking on a door and finding an elderly formerly enslaved person and telling them tell me your story. Why does that matter who the person is who’s asking that question?
JH: It matters because one just the comfort level of these people. In some instances the person interviewing was the son of the person that had enslaved the person they were interviewing. There was a big conflict of interest right there. You know what I mean? That’s going to make an uncomfortable situation and also depending on the question they’re not going to say anything negative.
BW: By contrast, around the same time Professor John Cade was leading students from two historically black universities in the collection of slave narratives. His interest in recording the accounts of ex-slaves was in direct response to the idea circulating at the time that African Americans didn’t mind slavery.
JH: He was interviewing formerly enslaved people and those questions were not as specific and a little more open ended so you got different answers from those people. The questions they asked were what type of slave were you: were you a field slave or a house slave? The next question was describe your home life to us. That was a really well worded question because the answers for the enslaved people that were house slaves that were not working out in the field, they would describe their home being the main house.
BW: Slave dwellings were not always these rickety wooden shacks over the hill. But slaves often slept right where they worked whether it be in the kitchen or the house or whatever.
JH: Yeah, because that’s where they lived, that’s where they worked, that’s where they slept, that’s where they ate so they considered the main house their home. As I say slavery was everywhere and enslaved people where everywhere because they were doing everything. They were living in the spaces where they were working, absolutely in the kitchen and washhouses because once the fire was lit in the kitchen you couldn’t put it out. It took a long time to start and you just constantly needed food. The cook was always in the kitchen cooking so someone always had to tend the fire. They were living and working in the same spaces. Sometimes they had individual houses, like an actual slave house. But then they also were living and working in the main house. And so they too were there all the time just like the white family was because they were caring for the white family. So that was their house. The main house was a slave house cause that’s who was also living there.
BW: And that insight is derived in part—if I understand what you’re saying—by a question on a survey that was formulated by a black person to ask other black people about their experiences. And this kind of empathy and common understanding of this experience to some extent created often more insightful slave narratives than government created, white written, outsider perspective on this experience and then had those folks go interview. Is that right?
JH: Yes. I mean Cade was trying to capture what life was like, so the experiences of these people. And so it had fewer questions and you can tell they were well thought out questions that were kind of more open ended. They would make you think a little bit about how to answer them versus the WPA ones. You know it was a very long list of questions and they just wanted brief quick answers to these things and move through it.
BW: With her project Saving Slave Houses, Jobie Hill is making a national survey of slave houses in the United States.
JH: The slave houses I was looking at were the ones in the Historic American Buildings Survey collection because that was the only national survey that was done. For that masters program you had to do a summer internship and so I applied to do that internship with HAB, Historic American Buildings Survey. There are 485 HABS sites with a documented slave house and there are 1,010 WPA narratives that describe their house during slavery. There are only five of those that match. There are only five HABs site that can be directly linked to a WPA narrative.
I mean I was excited to find five. I wasn’t even sure I was gonna find one. I was like look at that. I was like that’s amazing. One is in Maryland. One is in Alabama. The other three are in Georgia. Yeah, so I’ve been to two of them.
BW: What does that mean to you?
JH: It just makes a difference because now you have that story in your head and an actual person. In the space you can just this person was here.
BW: Because for the Jobie the spaces are nothing without the names of the people who called it home.
JH: Architecture’s always been interesting to me because it’s about the people. That’s why we have architecture. Buildings are built for people. When I was in school I also got degrees in anthropology because I was also fascinated with the people. That’s what has always been interesting to me is the people who lived there or wanted these buildings. For me you can’t take the people away from the architecture.
BW: How do you find the people? You’ve gone out in the field, you’ve found this slave dwelling, you’ve inspected it, categorized it, you’ve dated it probably so now how do you discover the lives of the people in there?
JH: That’s the tricky part. But that’s also the fun part. So there aren’t a ton of historical records about enslaved people but there are more than people think there are. The information you find about enslaved people is not where you think you would find it necessarily because you have to remember that they were thought of as property. So you have to look for places and information about the property on a plantation. You’ll find them in account books. When they were keeping track of how many animals they had you’ll find how many enslaved people they had. In things like that you’ll find names of enslaved people. That’s the first thing I’ll do is try to identify names because once you give a name to someone and can put them in this house than it makes it that much more important.
I mean these buildings were houses. In my mind they’re sacred places. Houses are really important to people and families. That’s what these buildings were. They weren’t outbuildings. They weren’t just another agricultural building on the landscape. They were a house. Families lived there. People lived there. Babies were born there. People died there. Just like in the bigger main house just smaller. It’s much harder to tear down Callie’s house than it is to tear down an old outbuilding. Once you give it a name and can say it was someone’s home, it becomes that much more valuable.
BW: You invest it with real meaning.
JH: So you can find names of enslaved people different places. A really good place is in wills. Slave owners would give away enslaved people in wills and their children, their future children, which I always find really interesting. If you have access to family records and things people kept names of enslaved people in bibles. That’s where you can start to find the names. You can check census records to find out ages and things like that. But also a good place to look and learn is from descendants. African American people, they know their family history. It’s just whether or not they’re willing to share it with others, people outside the family. I’ve been contacted by some descendants of sites that I’ve been to and they’re really excited to share the information they’ve found with me cause I can also help them and share the information that I have found.
BW: One of the amazing stories in the Encyclopedia is about the creation of this book The Negro in Virginia, which used a lot of these slave narratives. There was a narrative of a formerly enslaved woman who was then living in West Point, Virginia. She gave a story of being virtually tortured by her mistress for stealing a piece of candy. This was included by the editor in a chapter in the book on punishment. This editor was a black editor and his boss was a white woman. She read it and said that’s just impossible. There’s no way that this young girl would be tortured and beaten and disfigured in this way. And she got in her car—this was in the 30s– and she drove to West Point Virginia and she knocked on some doors until she found this woman. She saw her face, permanently disfigured. She heard the story from her own mouth and she believed it. But what is scary is that we can’t do that. We can’t drive to West Point and find this woman. In fact the place she lived at is now an empty lot. We depend on all of these sources that then are imperfect because of course all sources that then are imperfect cause of course all sources are imperfect. We find ways to dismiss them because we don’t want to face that reality.
JH: Yeah, but we have to. If we don’t then things are just never going to get better. These are the people that sacrificed, contributed to, and helped build and shape America. They’re a part of history. And we need to find ways to empathize with enslaved people and we need to find ways to accept their mechanisms for surviving being oppressed.
When I do this research and I talk to other people, people always bring up that talking about slavery is uncomfortable. It was uncomfortable for the people that survived it. But they did. They survived it. We all benefitted from it. We owe them to talk about this because slavery and their lives is what America is built on. We’re still dealing with racism and inequality and what they went through. If we can’t find a way to relate to them than we’re not going to be able to understand what’s happening and be able to relate to what’s going on in the world today.
BW: That was Jobie Hill. To learn more about her research, go to Saving Slave Houses dot org.
To read more about Bethany Veney and to find a full transcript of her autobiography, go to EncyclopediaVirginia.org.
Music in this episode is by Blue Dot Sessions.
This podcast was produced by Miranda Bennett.