Bethany Johnson was born enslaved on the farm of James Fletcher of Pass Run, a farm near Luray, Shenandoah County (later Page County). She was one of five children of Joseph and Charlotte Johnson. In a narrative of her life dictated in 1889, she declared herself to be seventy-four years old, making her birth year about 1815, although in 1912 the Worcester Telegram reported that she had celebrated her 100th birthday that year on March 19.
In her narrative Veney writes that she never knew her father and that her mother died when she was about nine years old. Fletcher died at about the same time, and his will separated members of the Johnson family among various surviving members of the Fletcher family. Ownership of Bethany and her sister Matilda transferred to Fletcher’s grown but unmarried daughter Lucy Fletcher. On January 25, 1827, Lucy Fletcher’s sister, Nasenith Fletcher, married David Kibler, and Lucy Fletcher and her slaves moved in with the new couple. Veney describes Lucy Fletcher as kindhearted and generally opposed to slavery. Kibler, by contrast, was cruel and abusive, and regularly inflicted violence on the enslaved people under his control, including Veney. Veney’s narrative also describes her conversion to Christianity, which was overseen by Kibler’s brother and sister, both devout Methodists.
Marriage and Freedom
At some point, probably late in the 1830s, Veney married Jerry Fickland, an enslaved man owned by Jonas Menefee, who lived several miles away on the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Menefee’s debts eventually forced him to sell his slaves and they were confined in the town of Little Washington, in Loudoun County, prior to auction. About March 1843 the trader Frank White purchased all of Menefee’s slaves and, before marching them south, encouraged Fickland to fetch Veney. White promised that the two would remain together. After Veney warned her husband not to trust the trader, Fickland fled to the mountains. He was captured and, with Menefee’s permission, sold away by another slave trader, David McCoy. Veney never saw him again.
The couple’s only child, Charlotte E. Fickland, was born in January 1844. Not long after, Veney arranged through Lucy Fletcher to be sold, along with her daughter, to John Printz Sr., of Luray. She labored for the family for several years. Then, early in the 1850s, she was sold to McCoy, who traded slaves in partnership with John O’Neile. Sent to Richmond for auction, she feigned sickness on the block, foiling her sale. Veney returned to Luray, working in the McCoyand fields and hiring out her labor. Her narrative emphasizes that she was able to regularly see her daughter, who was still owned by Printz.
McCoy accepted a job overseeing a road construction gang of free black men, and he assigned Veney to cook for them. One of those laborers, Frank Veney, became her second husband, and the couple had one son, Joe Veney. In 1915 Frank Veney told the Page News and Courier that over the course of his life he had married twenty-five women, of whom he could remember eleven. Bethany Veney, he said, was his ninth wife. Veney negotiated with McCoy to hire her time out as she wished, paying her owner $30 per year and keeping anything left over for herself. Shefrom John Printz on a mountain spur south of Luray called Stony Man.
Late in the 1850s, two copper mining speculators, G. J. Adams and J. Butterworth, of Providence, Rhode Island, arrived to restart a mine near Stony Man. They hired Veney as a cook and servant for $1.50 per week. “My boy was happy, as was I,” Veney states in her narrative. In 1858, however, McCoy’s gambling debts raised the specter that his property would be seized and auctioned. On December 27 of that year Adams purchased Veney and her son for $775 and took them to Providence, Rhode Island, where they became free. Adams did not purchase Veney’s daughter, Charlotte, or Charlotte’s husband, Aaron Jackson. And Veney’s own husband, Frank Veney, did not go north. Bethany Veney had planned to return to Virginia, but‘s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 and then the Civil War prevented it. Frank Veney later said that after not hearing from her for three years he married again.
Bethany Veney’s Slave Narrative
The title page for Bethany Veney's autobiography, The Narrative of Bethany Veney, a Slave Woman (1889), notes that the introduction to the book was written by Willard Francis Mallalieu, an American bishop of the Methodist Episcopal church.
The cover of The Narrative of Bethany Veney, a Slave Woman (1889), the autobiography of a Virginia-born enslaved woman, bears the book's alternate title, Aunt Betty's Story.
Veney died on November 16, 1916, at the home of her daughter in Worcester. She was buried in that city’s Hope Cemetery. On July 12, 2003, Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney signed a proclamation declaring “Bethany Veney Day” in Worcester.