- "Freedom. I remembered what Mr. Harms had said about choices. I looked at the letters more closely. For the first time freedom showed me a clear picture. A picture of me."
Clotee Henley (c. 1847 – May 6, 1941) was the daughter of Rissa. She was a slave on the Belmont Plantation in Virginia. When her mother was sent away, Clotee was taken in by Aunt Tee and Uncle Heb. Her close friends were Hince and Spicy. Clotee taught herself how to read and write.
Clotee was born in spring "when the dogwoods bloomed" according to Aunt Tee around 1847. Her father, Bob Coleman drowned before she was born. She was separated from her mother, Rissa, when Master Henley gave her to his sister. Her mother placed Clotee in the care of Aunt Tee and Uncle Heb, before she left. Rissa died five years later.
At some point, she was sent to work in the kitchen with Aunte Tee, while her friends Wook and Missy were placed in the fields. Two years after her mother's death, Clotee began learning how to read and write in secret. She was unwittingly taught by her mistress Lilly Henley, who ordered her to fan her son William during his lessons. In March 1859, Clotee began keeping a diary, which she kept a secret from everyone.
A month later, Spicy was brought to work in the kitchens. She and Spicy became close friends within a few months. Later, William was badly injured while trying to ride a horse. In retaliation, Master Henley beat Uncle Heb to death, blaming him for his son's situation. A couple weeks later, Aunt Tee and Spicy were sent to the slave quarters. Not long after, William's tutor, Ely Harms arrived. In October, Mr. Harms had learned her secret, but did not reveal that he was an abolitionist until early December. Meanwhile, Clotee had began staying with Aunt Tee and Spicy, when she was not working.
In later December, Master Henley made a bet, promising Hince to the Campbelles' if they won. After he lost, Hince told Master Henley about Mr. Harms in order to get his freedom papers. Clotee came up with a plan to save Mr. Harms, though he was still forced to leave. In February 1860, she met with Mr. Harms and he promised to help her escape soon. Hince and Spicy did not have enough time to wait, so Clotee devised another plan. The two of them escaped successfully. On the appointed day, she told Mr. Harms that she wanted to stay in order to become a conductor of the Underground Railroad.
During the Civil War, Clotee helped over one hundred and fifty slave escape to freedom and served as a spy for the Union Army. Ulysses S. Grant awarded her a commendation for her valor. In 1875, Clotee began attending Virginia Colored Women's Institute. She dedicated the rest of her life to several causes, including educating former slaves, women's suffrage, and equal rights. Throughout her life, she kept in contact with Hince, Spicy, and even William.
In 1939, Clotee was interviewed by Lucille Avery over a period of two months. Her story was published in the summer 1940 issue of Virginia Chronicle. Clotee passed away on May 6, 1941. Hundreds of her former students attended her funeral. The epitaph on her headstone read "Freedom is more than a word."
Personality and traits
Clotee was bright and learned how to read and write within three years. She enjoyed learning in general and went to great lengths to keep up with her education Clotee was resourceful, using paper from the trash and swiping ink from Master Henley. She knew how to keep a secret and rarely made a careless mistake.
Behind the scenes
- She is the heroine of Patricia C. McKissack's A Picture of Freedom.
- Shadia Simmons portrays her in a short film that was released in 1999. Simmons is known for her roles in Strange Days at Blake Holsey High, Life with Derek, and The Color of Friendship.
- Clotee is also featured in the computer game, Dear America: Friend to Friend.