Nettie Green Williams

"Aunt Nettie"
c. 1839 - Dec. 14, 1912

Sometime before her own death in 1966, Rose Hart Butler compiled a list of [non-Japanese] people believed to be still buried at the Slaughter Cemetery. Rose was the daughter and (after her brother Stanley’s death) only child of cemetery trustee James Hart and his wife Eliza. Just as her father maintained a keen interest in the cemetery throughout his life, so too, evidently, did Rose. Of course, there is no way to know if she referenced her father’s records or merely her own memory—or some combination of the two—when she compiled her hand written-list, but either way, there is little doubt that she was uniquely qualified to perform this valuable task.

A copy of the list, in Rose’s careful handwriting, is on file at the White River Valley Museum. One of the more compelling entries she included reads as follows: “Aunt Nettie—Dec. 1912. Negro lived at Ballards.” A check of the 1900 Census for Auburn revealed a Nettie Williams—a Virginia-born black woman who was then working as a servant for the James Beattie family, no doubt helping out with their many young children. At that time the Beatties lived next door to Mary Ballard and her adult sons Leon and Arthur. Although Leon’s wife also lived in Mary’s household, she and Leon were newly-weds who had not yet had children. No doubt the Ballards became acquainted with Nettie through her work at the Beatties. As the Ballard grandchildren began to be born, the Beattie family may have outgrown their need for hired help, freeing up “Aunt Nettie” to work for the Ballards.

If this scenario—or one like—indeed came to pass, it couldn’t have endured for more than a few years. In the 1910 Census, Nettie can be found listed as a patient (widowed, born in Virginia) at the King County Hospital and Poor Farm. She was by then an elderly woman with, evidently, no family in the area to support her in her declining years.

Nettie’s death was included on the Washington Death Index. She died on Dec. 14, 1912 at the age of 73 years, 6 months, 23 days. From this information, we can calculate her date of birth as May 22, 1839. Her parents are listed on this index as Charles Green and Lucy Strickland.

Historic photo of an anonymous black nanny and the white child in her care.
Historic photo of an anonymous black nanny
and the white child in her care. There are
no known photos of Nettie Williams.

A black woman born in 1839 in antebellum Virginia would almost certainly have been born into slavery. Nettie would have been a young woman when the Civil War erupted around her. One wonders if she shared stories of this critical era in American history with her young charges here in Auburn, or if she left her stories buried in the past. Unfortunately, there’s a great deal about Nettie that we may never know, including what brought her to far off Washington State, what became of the “Mr. Williams” she evidently married, and if she ever saw her parents after surviving an institution that was famous for cruelly separating black children from their parents on a master’s whim.

The Ballard Family (with whom Rose associated Aunt Nettie) owned property in the Slaughter Cemetery—as the Pioneer Cemetery was known in its early days. By the time of Nettie Williams’ death in 1912, the Ballards would have disinterred their loved ones and moved their remains to cemeteries on higher ground due to concerns about flooding at the old cemetery. Although the cemetery maps don’t indicate exactly where Nettie is buried, it would make perfect sense that the Ballard’s might have donated their abandoned and unwanted plot for their former nanny’s burial. Unfortunately, their generosity evidently did not extend to purchasing a marker for Nettie’s grave, the location of which may have been entirely forgotten by 1917, when that area of the cemetery was deeded to the Buddhist church for the use of Auburn’s Japanese community.

In addition to Rose Butler’s cemetery list, there is another document at the White River Valley Museum pertaining to this section of the cemetery. The letter was sent to the city of Auburn after descendants of Faustula Spafford attempted to visit her unmarked grave. Although Faustula’s remains had never been moved, when her family came to pay their respects many years after her death, they found her grave occupied by a marker for a Japanese man, evidently inurned in the same plot. It’s very possible that Nettie Williams’ grave is likewise unacknowledged beneath later Japanese inurnments—a sad fate, indeed, for the remains of the only person of African descent buried in the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery.

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