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AfriGeneas Genealogy and History Forum Archive 2

Duke U. Collection's Letter from a Slave

I found this at

Vilet Lester Letter, 1857
From the Joseph Allred Papers
An On-line Archival Collection

Special Collections Library at Duke University

Original document - scanned images and transcription

About Vilet Lester

Read the letter

About the collection at Duke

More information about related collections

Further reading about American slave women

Statement on use and reproduction

About the digitized version of the collection

Related Sites:

African American Women: On-line Archival Collections

Retrieving African-American Women's History: Manuscript Sources at Duke

Women's Studies Resources at Duke

Special Collections Library, Duke University

About Vilet Lester.

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

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.

About the collection at Duke.

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.

More information about related collections.

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

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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