Meet Venus Manning of South Scituate, Massachusetts
Updated: January 14, 2022
December 1, 2021
In a digitized copy of a 1928 out-of-print local history book titled Old Time Anecdotes of the North River and the South Shore, a curious picture of a Black woman named Venus Manning exists with no context. Who was this woman who could afford to have her picture taken in the nineteenth century? Readers of Merritt’s book learn nothing beyond the fact that Venus was “An Early Resident of South Scituate,” but Venus, as it turns out, lived an exceptional life that included slavery, shrewd financial skills, and abolitionist activism
A quick search for Venus showed little beyond her birth in 1777. Her year of birth and her first name hint that Venus may have been born into slavery, as Massachusetts did not abolish slavery until 1783, but her freedom status at birth was mere speculation. Thankfully, Venus Manning left a robust probate file that yields clues to a life well-lived. An item in her last will and testament dictates that “…said remainder to be administrated as follows, first to render such assistance to Ichabod, James, Catherine, and Patty Sylvester, children of my deceased brother Fruitful Sylvester.” Venus mentioning her brother Fruitful Sylvester by name unlocks a huge clue to her identity. Historian L. Vernon Briggs tells us in his well-read 1889 “History of Shipbuilding on North River” that Fruitful Sylvester was born in Norwell enslaved:
Venus Manning’s Estate was Impressive. Through Fruitful Sylvester we can build a Sylvester family tree. Venus and her brother Fruitful had four sisters, Catherine, Edna, Hittie (Mehitable), and Rhoda. Despite Venus and her five siblings being born into slavery, she boasted an impressive estate at the time of her 1860 death and she was amongst the wealthiest single women in the town of South Scituate (Norwell). Her estate was appraised at $3,375.95; if an online inflation calculator is to be believed, this would be $112,000 in 2022 dollars. Furthermore, in 1859 and 1860, Venus was taxed at a higher rate—$19 dollars—than most of her fellow South Scituate residents. Her wealth accrued because, no doubt, beyond Fruitful Sylvester, none of the Sylvester siblings had children; subsequently, the siblings were able to transfer money and property to their survivors. Venus was the last of the six Sylvesters standing.
Venus worshipped, married, and banked in Boston. Acknowledging that Venus may have inherited some wealth from her siblings should not discount Venus’s own industriousness. Records from 1805 – 1841 show that Venus was baptized, married, and banked in Boston; she later resided in neighboring Roxbury. Records from Baldwin Place Baptist Church report Venus’s Baptism in 1805. She married Thomas Manning at the same church in 1809. And extant records from the Provident Institution for Savings show both Venus Manning and Thomas Manning making deposits.
Venus was financially literate. Her probate file further reveals that, upon return to her hometown and presumably after her husband’s death, she held dividend-paying accounts at the Scituate Savings Bank and the South Scituate Savings Bank, and she also owned and collected dividends on three shares in the Boston and Albany Railroad. Beyond that, she held a $200 note against the town of South Scituate. The note against the town is further attested to in South Scituate’s annual report for 1860.
Strikingly, Venus had a philanthropic streak. The two most frequent places that Venus appears in the record are donations to the Baptist Missionary Society and the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, the latter of which she was a Life Member. Furthermore, her will left $200 to the Methodist Society of South Scituate, and $200 to the Boston’s Baldwin Place Baptist Church for the expressed purpose to “promote the cause of abolition of slavery in these United States.” This is yet another one of countless unwritten examples of African Americans pushing from below to pressure white society for abolition.
Thomas Manning largely remains a mystery: Beyond his marriage to Venus Sylvester in 1809, there is a Thomas Manning listed as making a deposit to the Provident Institution for Savings in 1831. Of course, it may be a mere coincidence that a man with the same name as Venus’s husband uses the same bank as Venus. But it’s a lead. And it’s further interesting that this Thomas Manning’s occupation is listed in the bank register as “mariner.” Sailing often offered the best opportunity for African American men to earn money and Thomas working in the notoriously dangerous trade could offer explanations as to where Venus’s money came from and why it is hard to track Thomas Manning’s death.
Despite Venus not having children, she had a family tree. Not much is known about her husband and it appears she returned to South Scituate a widow, but her will indicates that she viewed Norwell’s African American community as extended family. Besides the children of her brother Fruitful, Venus’s probate file mentions many other people, including members of the Lee, Gunderway, and Winslow families. One notable beneficiary is Benjamin F. Lee, a Civil War veteran who served with the famed Colored Troops of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. Additionally, Venus left her share of her house to Benjamin’s father, George Lee. This house would have stood on a six-acre property at approximately 246 Circuit Street at the corner of Pine Street.
I built out Venus and Fruitful’s family tree on WikiTree to link everyone from Norwell’s Wildcat community that was mentioned in her will; if you want to explore further notes on the Sylvester siblings and to see Venus’s connections to her to friends and neighbors in Norwell’s Black community, start with the profile I created for Venus.
Find-A-Grave lists Venus Manning as being buried in Norwell’s First Parish Cemetery, but there was no photo. Additionally, I was disheartened to find that Venus does not appear in the well-known “Old Cemeteries of Southeastern Massachusetts” book which contains transcriptions of headstones in cemeteries across Plymouth County. The book had an entry for Fruitful, but not Venus. I feared Venus’s final resting spot may have been lost to the ages. Doubtful but nonetheless diligent, I visited First Parish Cemetery and was rewarded. Venus rests alongside Fruitful Sylvester and the rest of her family!
Postscript: In a beautiful postscript to Venus Manning’s life, we find this note in an 1864 issue of The Boston Advertiser. It details a $100 gift from “the Venus Manning Fund” for “the relief of the suffering Freed Colored People of the Mississippi Valley.”
This language concerning the “Mississippi Valley” is from the Massachusetts Freedman’s Aid Society that provided support for the formerly enslaved who migrated to Boston and for Black educational programs across the country.
Venus Manning was born into slavery before the Revolution and, through a purposefully-lived life, she was an abolitionist who improved life for once-enslaved people in the post-Emancipation United States. 162 years after her death, Venus Manning is reshaping how we remember the impact of Black families and Black women had on early Norwell, and she is also reshaping who we remember as abolitionists.
What else can we learn about Venus? Venus seems like an absolute legend; there are many gaps to be filled in between the scant but fascinating details known about her life. Who were her parents? What happened to Thomas Manning? What was her life like in her Boston and Roxbury years? Where did she learn her financial acumen?
If anyone comes across further details of Venus Manning’s life, please contact me and let me know!
SOURCES: For a traditional bibliography of the sources linked in this story click here.
Copyright Wayne Tucker 2022. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License