Shenandoah County, Va, has a unique and valuable biography little known in the community: The Narrative of Bethany Veney: A Slave Woman, compiled in 1889. It is one of several narratives from Virginia that you can read to gain an understanding of the important roles enslaved African Americans played in shaping the economy and infrastructure of our country, of our state, of our county. It shares the life story of Bethany Johnson Veney, who was born on 19 March 1812 in Shenandoah County (an area now part of Page County at its formation in 1831 - a time when approximately 12.5% of our county's population consisted of enslaved individuals). Through ingenuity, hard work, and strong faith, she survived an extremely difficult time in our county's history.
Here's an extremely small excerpt:
"Several months passed, and I became a mother... you can never understand the slave mother's emotions as she clasps her new-born child, and knows that a master's word can at any moment take it from her embrace... 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" (1889:26).
"I was well known in all the parts around as a faithful, hard-working woman, when well treated, but ugly and wilful, if abused beyond a certain point. 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" (1889:27).
Sometime later, Betty is working for copper miners on Stony Man, when she musters the courage to ask them to buy her freedom, which they do on 27 December 1858. She shares: "Not long afterward... Messrs. Adams and Butterworth suspended operations at the mine, and, taking me and my boy, turned their faces homeward. They at that time expected to return... However, before their business arrangements for going were matured, John Brown had made his invasion into Virginia; and the excitement that followed made it unsafe for any one who sympathized with or defended him to be seen in any Southern State.
"Then followed the War of the Rebellion; and it was not till a much later date, and in a different way from what I had anticipated when I left, that I saw again the old fields where I had toiled and suffered, and grasped again the hands that before had beaten and bruised me" (1889:36-37).
Bethany Johnson Veney's narrative is not part of common knowledge among Shenandoah County residents. Here, her 103-year life, and the long lives of other enslaved African Americans who faced impossible odds to survive, are overshadowed by a four-year civil war. Their deeds, their faith, their examples are unremembered, while the men who fought for their continued subjugation are even today lauded as a more acceptable example of justice and character for our children. You should be asking yourself, why?
Such a valuable primary source document written by someone who was born in our county should be required reading for our students. And for leaders in our community, too. Instead, we require 5th graders to visit the New Market Battlefield to learn about a battle that prolonged the Civil War and the freedom of millions of people.
Please take time to familiarize yourself with such narratives as that of Bethany Johnson Veney. When we look at our history from all perspectives, and not just the predominant perspective, it helps us make decisions today that promote true peace and inclusivity for everyone in the community - including the names we should keep in our public school buildings.
SENK is an artist and writer in the Shenandoah Valley. The blog, 52 Weeks, is an ethical contemplation on the importance of choosing public school names that are not divisive within a community. Each post is based on over seven years of research by the author. 52 Weeks is a compassionate appeal to community and school board members to not revert to the names of Confederate leaders for Shenandoah County, Va, public schools.