About the Digital Collection
Browse this letter: https://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/scriptorium/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 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.