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Beyond “Aunt Betty’s Story”

February 9, 2009

bethanyveney300dpi1 Filling-in some of the gaps in the story of Bethany Veney and following up “beyond ‘Aunt Betty’s Story,'” the following is from an article I wrote in March 2006 for my column in the Page News & Courier.

Born ca. 1815 in Page County, the daughter of slaves Joseph and Charlotte Johnson, Bethany Johnson – better known as Bethany “Aunt Betty” Veney (for her second marriage to Frank Veney) – has a life story that has been well-documented in “Aunt Betty’s Story.” The booklet can be found in print and even more easily on the web but has a limitation for the fact that it ends in telling the story of her life in 1889. However, “Aunt Betty” actually lived for another twenty-six years.

Now, I’ve brought up various aspects of her story and the life of her second husband in a few articles over the years, but within the last year, I have had the particularly good fortune of having made contact with one of Bethany Veney’s great-great granddaughters, also of Worcester, Massachusetts. Just last week, as some may have noticed in the Page County chronology in the Page News & Courier, there was a photo of Bethany Veney, which was copied and sent to me by by this descendant. I thought it an appropriate addition to the special features concentrating on the 175th anniversary of Page County. In addition to this fabulous photo, I was also very happy to receive a couple of newspaper articles – one relating the story of Bethany’s 100th birthday party, and another, a very informative obituary.

As everyone knows from her story, having been purchased by George James Adams, of Providence, R.I., Bethany was liberated from slavery and taken back to Providence. Of course, there are a few minor details that were not mentioned in the booklet. At the opening of the Civil War, Adams told Bethany that “she was at liberty to go wherever she pleased.” As one article stated, “as she used to put it, ‘the same as white people.’” Aunt Betty then went to Worcester 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 on her own as a laundress and earned extra money by going door to door and selling a bluing solution (made to brighten clothing). Aunt Betty 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 sixteen relatives back to Worcester with her, including her daughter Charlotte E. Fickland Jackson (Jerry Fickland being the name of Betty Veney’s first husband and Charlotte’s father) and her husband, Aaron Jackson.

Like Veney, both Charlotte and Aaron had been slaves in Page County, but, their freedom not being purchased like Aunt Betty’s, they remained in Page for a few years after, through the Civil War. Having taken a look into the census records, it looks like Aaron’s and Charlotte’s first child, Bettie L. Jackson, was born in Virginia in 1867. However, their second child, Martha B. Jackson was born in Massachusetts in August 1869 – showing that they relocated from Page County to Worcester sometime between 1867 and 1869. Other children born to the couple in later years included David T. (1871), Blanche (born ca. 1876 and later married a man by the name of Cooper), Harry C. (1879), and Lena (born after 1886? and later married Lesley Martin Wilson of Maryland). Aaron Jackson died on June 13, 1905, while residing at their home at 21 Tufts Street in Worcester. Jackson had been admitted to the City Hospital with blood poisoning. Forty years since having been a slave in Page County, Aaron was 73 years old at the time of his death. In his years at Worcester, he had been a member of the Volunteers of America and was interested in religious work. In addition to his children and grandchildren, he was also survived by a brother, Olmstead Jackson and a sister, Miss Hennie Jackson. It is uncertain whether these siblings had been slaves in Page County or not, but it seems quite possible. Neither can be located in the United States census records.

On March 19, 1912, “Aunt Betty” celebrated her 100th birthday at her home at 21 Tufts Street in Worcester. A newspaper account from the “Telegram” read “It was planned to have a reception from 2 o’clock in the evening until 9 o’clock last night, but it was long before the beginning when visitors, with guests began to arrive and they continued to come all day, and until Aunt Betty retired last night. Relatives present, were her daughter, Mrs. Charlotte Jackson, with whom she lives, granddaughters, Mrs. Lena Wilson, of Worcester and Mrs. Blanche Cooper of Philadelphia, and great-grandchildren Robert and Emily Cooper and Rheta and Mabel Wilson. The party was arranged by Mrs. B.A. Jackson, 2 Clifton Court.” The article stated that over 100 people “called during the day” and “had a chat with Aunt Betty, who appeared in excellent health and in full possession of her faculties. She readily recognized all who came, although there were some she had not seen in a long time. ‘I don’t feel like 100 years old,’ she said. ‘No, I don’t feel that way, but when I stop to look back, I realize I have lived a long time. I don’t think I feel any older than I did a year ago today; when I celebrated my 99th birthday.’”

In addition to visitors, letters had been received “from acquaintances in Boston, Providence, Pawtucket, New York, Washington, Ohio, Michigan and Colorado. In many of each person’s letters, money was enclosed. Many of the guests brought money, and it was put away, not to be counted until this morning. Among the letters which Aunt Betty most cherishes was one from Mayor David F. O’Connell, which the postman brought on his first run.”

As with any good newspaper account of a person’s 100th birthday celebration, there were some great stories about Bethany’s life that are certainly of value in mentioning in this article.

“She has been religious and was of the old fashioned Methodist school,” noted one newspaper account. “She had never danced, played cards, or taken part in any frivolous past times. She was always opposed to dancing especially the so-called modern dancing and always said that these dances were the work of the devil.” She was a member of the A.M.E. Church and for many years preceding her 100th birthday was a member of the Trinity Church. For fifty-seven “consecutive summers she had attended the Sterling camp meetings and her statements of testimony have been the interesting feature. She is a famous blueberry picker and last summer insisted that she had lost little of the strength that has made her old age remarkable for she keeps up year end, in the berry patches, with pickers many years her junior.” She believed that “her long life was due to the fact that she always lived regularly and she never touched liquor and she went to church until the past year and the greatest hardship that she had to bear was owing to the fact that her advancing years made it necessary for her to ‘miss meeting’ on account of her health sometimes and because of the weather.”

When she was 96 or 97 years old, Bethany, along with a friend, was headed for a camp meeting but took a wrong car. Instead of arriving at Sterling, she arrived at Clinton, Massachusetts. So, having reached the incorrect destination, she took to the road by foot and walked six miles to make her meeting. “On that occasion she went into a field to rest and while there picked several quarts of blueberries and took them along with her to the camp grounds.”

At 1 p.m. on November 16, 1916, Bethany Veney, age 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.

On July 12, 2003, the Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, signed a proclamation honoring Bethany Veney and her life by declaring the day “Bethany Veney Day in Worcester, Massachusetts.”

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