Slave letters are very rare documents. This letter from Vilet Lester is one of less than a dozen such letters we have been able to identify among the vast amount of plantation records held at the Duke Special Collections Library. In this particular case, Vilet's letter stands alone with virtually no other documents - no slave lists, work records, or owner's letters - to give us further information about her. We know that the Pattersons (who once owned Vilet Lester) were related to the Allreds which would account for Vilet's letter to Patsey Patterson being in the Allred Papers. However, the Allred collection is very small and consequently does not shed any further light on Vilet Lester's life.
What little we know about Vilet Lester we have to glean from the letter itself. Clearly, Vilet was once owned by the Patterson family who lived in Randolph County, North Carolina. Vilet signed this letter "your long loved and well wishing play mate as a servant until death" which might indicate that Vilet and Patsey Patterson were raised together as children. Perhaps Vilet's mother was one of the Pattersons' house servants. This might account for the seemingly close relationship Vilet shared with Patsey.
In the letter Vilet mentions that she was sold several times before reaching her stay in the James B. Lester household. By her account, Vilet had been away from the Patterson home for at least 5 years by the time she sent this letter. We also know that Vilet had a child while owned by the Pattersons. One might be able to put these clues together and get an idea of Vilet's age or when she was born.
While we can make educated guesses about Vilet Lester, we will probably never know the real facts of her life. We don't even know whether Vilet actually wrote this letter or had someone write it for her. Although many of the facts of Vilet Lester's life may be elusive, she still gives us a rare and precious view into slave life through this letter.
Note: A transcription of this letter has also been published in the 2nd edition of Roots of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women published by Northeastern University Press, 1996.
The Joseph Allred Papers is a small collection of 37 items, consisting mainly of business letters to Allred regarding the purchase, leasing, and mining of land in North Carolina. Also included are numerous letters from Allred family members related to estate settlements and life outside of N.C. Besides Vilet Lester's letter to Patsey Patterson, there is also an 1836 letter to Martha Patterson from Asenath M. Duncan which contains a reference to cousin Sam Allred. The Allred Papers were purchased by the University in 1938.
You can find more information about the Special Collections Library and other holdings related to African-American women through various pages at this site. For more information about other African American materials, browse the Duke on-line catalog or contact our reference desk directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are many books currently available that can provide additional information on the lives of slave women. The following are just a few. Your public or school librarian should be able to help locate these and other related titles.
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The digitized version of the Vilet Lester's letter was developed as a project of The Digital Scriptorium of the Duke University Special Collections Library in collaboration with the Duke University Libraries Women's Studies Bibliographer.
These papers were scanned with a Sharp JX-330 color flatbed scanner with Adobe Photoshop on a PowerMacintosh 9500/120. The "double size" images are 24-bit 150dpi JPEGs and the "full size" ones are 72dpi GIFs.