The bonds of love were stronger than the manacles of slavery.
Henry and Rebecca Brantley survived decades of oppression, cruelty and heartbreak, overcoming hardships that would shatter the spirit of most couples.
Through it all, they never gave up on each other.
A 25-foot granite monument in Portage County is a testament to the enduring love that the Brantleys shared. The 1880s memorial stands atop a breezy hill in the middle of Maple Grove Cemetery in Ravenna.
Near the top, the spire bears the word “EMANCIPATION” and features relief carvings of clenched hands breaking free of shackles and chains.
A weather-beaten inscription, almost too worn to read, gives a brief history:
“Henry Brantley born 1825, died April 15, 1888. Rebecca Brantley, born August 1833, died Oct. 26, 1880. Born slaves near Clarksville, Montgomery County, Tennessee. Married 1852. Springhill, Mo. Fugitives from bondage, they came to Ravenna Aug. 28, 1862, where they lived honest and industrious lives.”
Naturally, there is far more to the story than would fit on any monument.
Henry and Rebecca had known each other since childhood. Born eight years apart on the same plantation near the Cumberland River, they took their surnames from owner Abraham Brantley, as was the custom at that time.
Abraham owned more than a dozen slaves and put them to work in the house and field. Henry was a butler and Rebecca was a housekeeper.
Not much is known about Abraham, other than the fact that his wife, Lucy, left him in the late 1820s, alleging cruel treatment. One can only imagine how he treated the slaves.
Becky, as Rebecca was better known, was a bright, willowy teen who caught Henry’s eye. The two fell in love, knowing that they could be torn apart at any time.
When Abraham died about 1850, his sons carefully divided the estate. Everett Brantley took Henry and Joel Brantley got Rebecca.
The brothers moved to farms near Spring Hill, Mo., where Henry and Rebecca remained in touch.
Allowed to marry
The slave owners allowed the couple to marry in 1852, but the joy was short-lived.
Joel Brantley died within a year and his assets were liquidated. Rebecca was dragged away and sold at a public auction for $830 to Washington Sides, a cruel, drunk, detestable owner who sadistically beat the 20-year-old woman.
“The slender girl was alternately a field and house hand, holding the plow, hoeing corn, made useful at hard farm work and then employed about the house,” the Portage County Republican Democrat, a Ravenna newspaper, noted in 1880. “She was often whipped unmercifully by the brutal master.”
As Henry Brantley later put it: “Her lot was far harder for a woman than a man.”
He and his wife were kept apart for nearly 10 years.
When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Washington Sides retreated to Arkansas, attempting to keep Becky and his other slaves from fleeing to freedom in the North. With the sound of artillery in the distance, Henry also was forced to move to the Deep South with a new owner.
One night, however, he saw an opportunity to escape and he seized it. Running for his life, he crossed the battle line in Arkansas and threw himself on the mercy of the Union Army.
The Yankee troops welcomed him into their ranks — not as a soldier, but as a servant.
Henry became the valet of Capt. Algernon S. Seaton, a Ravenna man in command of Company K of the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry Regiment.
The two developed a close bond that transformed into eternal gratitude when Seaton was seriously wounded in battle. Henry Brantley carried the captain on his back through enemy fire for about eight miles to a military hospital.
In August 1862, Seaton was furloughed to Ravenna to recover at home. Henry looked after him on the long journey. When the captain was well enough to return to battle, he bid farewell to his friend Henry, who was now a free man.
Seaton had unfinished business. As a pledge to the man who saved his life, he tracked down Rebecca, who by then had also fled across Union Army lines, and arranged for her safe passage to Ravenna.
Separated for nearly a decade, the Brantleys reunited in November 1862.
How joyful that first embrace must have been. For never giving up hope, the two were rewarded with a new life in a new town.
Settling in Ravenna
The couple settled into their adopted home of Ravenna, gradually blending in with Northern society. He was 37 and she was 29.
Both found jobs with Portage County Probate Judge Cornelius A. Reed (1838-1929), a Rootstown native, who lived at 533 E. Main St. in Ravenna.
Reed built the first opera house in Portage County and donated money for construction of a library. Today, Reed Memorial Library in Ravenna is named for him.
Rebecca worked as Reed’s housekeeper and Henry served as a handyman and caretaker. The labor wasn’t easy, but the Brantleys were pleased to finally receive pay for their work.
They saved enough money to buy a homestead at the northeast corner of Cedar and Elm streets, where they spent the remainder of their years.
Respected by all
A local reporter described the Brantleys as “an industrious, economical couple” who were “respected by all classes of society.”
“Becky was a bright, capable woman, a great favorite to many families, as she was a skilled cook and her services were in great demand at parties and the social gatherings,” the Republican Democrat noted.
“Several years since, she became a member of the Disciple Church and in the Sabbath school she learned to read, sometime after she was thirty years of age and found great enjoyment in this acquirement. She was a devout Christian, regular and prompt at church, always ladylike and interesting.”
The couple spent 18 years together before health troubles — no doubt exacerbated by a hard life during captivity — caught up with them.
Rebecca spent her last three years as an invalid before passing away of “pulmonary consumption,” later known as tuberculosis, in 1880.
Henry followed her to Maple Grove Cemetery in 1888 “after a long and painful illness.” A large crowd attended his funeral.
Judge Reed, who served as executor of the Brantley estate, is credited with building the Ravenna monument to his former employees.
There were no known heirs, so Reed invested the couple’s savings into a granite spire pointing toward heaven.
Veterans clubs, the NAACP and other local groups routinely decorate the former slaves’ memorial on patriotic holidays.
On a breezy hill in a cemetery, freedom and love endure.
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.