Bethany Veney (ca. 1815–1916)
Born into slavery (as Bethany Johnson) near Luray around the year 1813, Bethany Veney lived a remarkable life that she documented in her autobiography, Aunt Betty's Story: The Narrative of Bethany Veney, a Slave Woman.
Bethany was 9 years old when her mother died; of her father, she recalled, “I knew nothing." She served under several owners, but found comfort when she converted to Christianity. In the late 1830s, she met and married a fellow slave, Jerry Fickland, but their marriage ended when he was sold and taken further south. Bethany’s daughter with Jerry, Charlotte, was born in January 1844.
In the 1850s, while serving as a cook for free black men working on constructing a pike (roadway), she met and married her second husband, Frank Veney, with whom she had a son named Joe. When she returned to Luray, she was able to hire her time out and earned enough money to rent her own home.
Late in the 1850s, Bethany and her son were purchased by a northern mining speculator, then taken north to Rhode Island in 1859 and freed. Her daughter, Charlotte, Charlotte’s husband (Aaron Jackson), and Frank Veney were all still in Virginia. Bethany planned to return to the Valley, but John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, the ensuing sectional tensions, and the Civil War that followed derailed those plans.
Late in 1859, as Bethany recalled, “my little Joe sickened and died.” She moved to Worcester, where she joined the Park Street Methodist Church and built a new life. (In 1867 she would help found the African Methodist Episcopal Bethel Church.)
When the Civil War ended, Bethany returned to the Shenandoah Valley, where, she recalled, “I found my daughter Charlotte grown to womanhood, married, and had one child.” She returned three more times, and eventually brought all 16 of her relatives back north.
Aunt Betty's Story was published in 1889. At the close of her narrative, Bethany said, “My back is not so straight nor so strong, my sight is not so clear, nor my limbs so nimble as they once were; but I am still ready and glad to do whatsoever my hand findeth to do, waiting only for the call to 'come up higher.'" Bethany died in Charlotte’s home in 1916.