Meet Venus Manning of South Scituate, Massachusetts

Photo cropped from: Merritt, J. Foster. (1928). Old Time Anecdotes of the North River and the South Shore. Rockland, Mass.: Rockland Standard Pub. Co. Original photographer unknown.

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. Readers of this 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 birth year and her first name hint that Venus was born into slavery, and, through her probate file, we learn that her brother was Fruitful Sylvester. This is a big deal because it means we can infer that Venus was born into slavery by examining Vernon Briggs’s brief sketch of Fruitful Sylvester:

SOURCE: Briggs, L. Vernon (Lloyd Vernon). (1889). History of shipbuilding on North River, Plymouth County, Massachusetts: with genealogies of the shipbuilders, and accounts of the industries upon its tributaries. 1640 to 1872.
“…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.” Will of Venus Manning. SOURCE: 1860 probate file of Venus Manning. Plymouth County, MA: Probate File Papers, 1686-1881.Online database. AmericanAncestors.org. New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2015. (From records supplied by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives.) CASE NUMBER:13629

Venus died in 1860 and had an impressive probate file. Despite being born into slavery, she held a significant estate which was appraised at $3,375.95; if (*if) an online inflation calculator is to be believed, this would be $112,000 in 2021 dollars. Furthermore, in 1859 and 1860, Venus was taxed at a higher rate than most of her fellow South Scituate residents. This is 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.

SOURCE: Plymouth County, MA: Probate File Papers, 1686-1881.Online database. AmericanAncestors.org. New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2015. (From records supplied by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives.) CASE NUMBER:13629

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. Venus, although born in Scituate, was baptized at Baldwin Place Baptist Church in 1805, married Thomas Manning at the same church in 1809, and Provident Institution for Savings records from 1821 and 1830 show Venus and Thomas made deposits at the bank.

Venus lived in Roxbury. In Edna Sylvester’s 1841 last will and testament, she leaves half of her estate to her sister “Venus Manning of Roxbury.”

Plymouth County, MA: Probate File Papers, 1686-1881.Online database. AmericanAncestors.org. New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2015. (From records supplied by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives.) CASE NUMBER: 19957

Venus was financially literate: Venus’s probate file indicates 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 3 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.

Philanthropy was important to Venus: 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 Church of South Scituate (a church that her sisters Patty and Katie helped found) 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.

1860 probate file of Venus Manning Plymouth County, MA: Probate File Papers, 1686-1881.Online database. AmericanAncestors.org. New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2015. (From records supplied by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives.) CASE NUMBER:13629

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.

Boston, MA: Provident Institution for Savings, 1831. (Online database: AmericanAncestors.org, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2020). From Provident Institution for Savings in the Town of Boston Records, 1816-1985. Boston Athenaeum

Venus, although childless, has a family tree: It was mentioned above that Venus was the sister of the locally-famous Fruitful Sylvester. Besides the children of Fruitful, Venus’s will 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 at approximately 246 Circuit Street.

Walling, H. F. (1857) Map of the county of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Boston and New York: Published by D. R. Smith & Co. [Map detail] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2012592354/.

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.

Venus Manning resided in South Scituate in 1850 with Rhoda, Ichabod, Patty, and Catherine Sylvester. United States 1850 Census. Online database. AmericanAncestors.org. New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2014. (Original index: United States Census, 1850. FamilySearch, 2014.)

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. 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.”

“From the Baldwin Place Baptist Society, by and of A.G. Stimson, on behalf of the Trustees of the Venus Manning Fund…100.00.” The Boston Advertiser. (1864. Jan 16).

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.

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? 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.

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Copyright Wayne Tucker 2022. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

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