Bethany Veney (ca. 1815­–1916)


Bethany Veney was an enslaved woman who, prior to the American Civil War (1861–1865), lived in the Shenandoah Valley and, in 1889, published The Narrative of Bethany Veney, a Slave Woman. Born near Luray, in what later became Page County, Veney labored for several different enslavers. She married Jerry Fickland, an enslaved man who was later sold south. Veney herself was placed on the auction block in Richmond but foiled the sale—and the separation from her family that it guaranteed—by pretending to be sick. After marrying her second husband, Frank Veney, a free black man, Bethany Veney negotiated a small amount of freedom by hiring out her labor and paying her enslaver a yearly fee. When her owner’s debts threatened the arrangement, Veney found relief in her employer, a copper miner from Rhode Island. He purchased Veney and her daughter and took them north. Veney eventually settled with some of her family in Worcester, Massachusetts, where she dictated her life story in 1889 and died in 1916.

Early Years

Shenandoah Valley

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 enslaved people 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 enslaved laborers and they were confined in the town of Little Washington, in Loudoun County, prior to auction. In about March 1843, the slave trader Frank White purchased all of Menefee’s enslaved laborers 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.

Slaves Waiting for Sale

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 McCoy house and 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. She rented a house from John Printz on a mountain spur south of Luray called Stony Man.

John Brown

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, 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 John Brown‘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.

Later Years

Bethany Veney’s Slave Narrative

Bethany Veney arrived in Providence in August 1859, and late in the year her son took ill and died. Adams moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, and Veney followed. When Adams returned to Providence, Veney decided to stay in Worcester, where she joined the Park Street Methodist Church and, in 1867, helped to found the African Methodist Episcopal Bethel Church. Years later the church met out of her home. At the end of the war, she returned to Luray and, after six or seven weeks, traveled north again, this time with her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchild. She made the trip south three more times in the years that followed, collecting sixteen relatives and bringing them to New England. In 1889 Veney dictated her life story to a white woman identified only by the initials M. W. G. It was published that year as The Narrative of Bethany Veney, a Slave Woman.

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.

ca. 1815
Bethany Veney is born enslaved in Luray, Shenandoah County (later Page County).
ca. 1824
Charlotte Johnson, the mother of Bethany Veney dies, as does their owner, James Fletcher. Ownership of Veney transfers to Fletcher's daughter Lucy.
January 25, 1827
David Kibler and Nasenith Fletcher marry in Shenandoah County (later Page County). Bethany Veney labors for the Kibler family.
ca. March 1843
Jerry Fickland, the husband of Bethany Veney, is sold, flees to the mountains, and is captured. Veney never sees him again.
January 1844
Charlotte E. Fickland, the daughter of Jerry Fickland and Bethany Veney, is born. Not long after Veney and her daughter are sold to John Printz Sr.
ca. Early 1850s
Bethany Veney is sold to David McCoy, a slave trader in partnership with John O'Neile. She foils an attempt to auction her in Richmond by pretending to be sick.
Late 1850s
Bethany Veney earns $1.50 per week cooking for G. J. Adams and J. Butterworth, copper miners from Rhode Island.
December 27, 1858
G. J. Adams, of Providence, Rhode Island, purchases Bethany Veney and her son, Joe.
August 1859
Bethany Veney and her son, Joe, arrive in Providence, Rhode Island.
Late 1859
Joe Veney, the son of Bethany Veney, takes ill and dies in Providence, Rhode Island.
ca. 1865
Bethany Veney travels to Luray and returns to Rhode Island with her daughter and son-in-law.
The Narrative of Bethany Veney, a Slave Woman is published in Boston, Massachusetts.
November 16, 1916
Bethany Veney dies at the home of her daughter in Worcester, Massachusetts. She is buried in that city's Hope Cemetery.
July 12, 2003
Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney declares "Bethany Veney Day" in Worcester.
  • McCarthy, B. Eugene, and Thomas L. Doughton, eds. From Bondage to Belonging: The Worcester Slave Narratives. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007.
APA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. Bethany Veney (ca. 1815­–1916). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/veney-bethany-ca-1815-1916.
MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Bethany Veney (ca. 1815­–1916)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 13 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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