Letter From a Freedman to His Old Master by Jourdon Anderson

JourdonIn the U.S. February is Black History Month and in the U.K. it is in October. I can imagine you’re thinking ‘eh it’s March you’re six days late and a dollar short for BHM.’

You are absolutely correct, however the delay is intentional. Why? Well, whilst I have previously written about Why Black History Month is important, I also believe Black History shouldn’t be relegated to one month of the year.

It needs to become a more standard and regular feature in education and that includes the history of indigenous people. Children should be introduced to more than just the usual suspects. Think about it, how many black men, women or events can you think of when someone asks you to name important figures or events in history. The answers tend to be the same, because only a small number of specific ones are taught as part of the curriculum. Try testing a friend, family member, your kids or even yourself. You might be surprised by the results.

History has been written predominantly by white men. History is also usually written by the victors. Obviously this means you will often get a subjective, inaccurate and one-sided view of any event or person.

Jourdon Anderson (1825 – 1907) is a Black American known for his written reply in answer to a letter his old master sent him. Colonel Anderson asked Jourdon and his wife to return to the plantation, where they had previously been held and forced to work as slaves, to help rebuild it after the chaos of the war. Harvest time was upon him and there was no-one to bring in the crops. When Jourdon received the letter he was a free man. In fact both Jourdon and his wife were freed by the Union Army in 1864 when the army was camped on the plantation they were being held on.

His response to his old master is a tongue-in-cheek satirical swipe at the sheer audacity of Colonel Anderson. It is articulate, logical, ironic, and yet at the same time you can ‘hear’ the reproach and emotional response in his words.

Dayton, Ohio,
August 7, 1865
To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee
Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.
I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.
As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.
In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.
Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.
From your old servant,
Jourdon Anderson.

Jourdon Anderson died in 1907 and his wife passed away six years later. He was 81 when he passed away, and together Jourdon and his wife had eleven children. He never returned to Big Spring, Tennessee, so one can assume he never received what he felt he was owed or the offer of a decent wage, then again he probably didn’t expect anything at all.

The letter is not only an important testament to the emotions and thoughts of a man used and abused as a slave by his fellow humans, it is also indicative of  his expectations for himself and his family. The equality of men, women and children, regardless of their skin colour. Education, equal wage, equal rights and a future for his descendants. All issues, which are still expectations in our day and age, but more importantly a basic human right for everyone or rather they should be.

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