The following is a letter written, via dictation, by a former slave and published as a public letter in a Newspaper in the later half of 1865. Given that the letter was dictated by a illiterate man in an age when newspapers frequently engaged in what can only be described as fraud and forgery whether or not this letter is the real thing can of course be doubted.
In this case it appears that the Jourdan Anderson with his wife Mandy, and children Milly Jane and Grundy are real people who were indeed living near Dayton Ohio at the time. Also Colonel H.P. Anderson was in fact a slave owner who lived near Big Spring Tennessee and seems to have owned those slaves as revealed by census records.1 So the letter is not a concoction but appears to be real.
Given that it seems to have been dictated at a Lawyers office it appears likely that the letter was polished and is not a verbatim transcription of what Mr. Anderson said. The letter is in response to a letter, which as not survived, from Mr. Anderson’s former owner asking Mr. Anderson to come back and work for him.
LETTER FROM A FREEDMAN TO HIS OLD MASTER.
[Written just as he dictated it.]
Dayton, Ohio, August 7, 1865.
To my old Master, COLONEL P. H. ANDERSON, Big Spring, Tennessee.
I got your letter, and was glad to find that you bad 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 darkies 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, 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, 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.
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,
The letter is a pretty excellent example of being oh so polite while telling someone to fuck off.
It also tells us about slavery in so many ways. Mr. Anderson’s telling comment about his wife being called Mrs. Anderson is a telling reference to the fact that slave could not get legally married and also a telling reference to how bonds between slaves were not respected and how slave wives and mothers were not respected. Behind all this is the horror of marriages and families broken up by sale.
The reference to the education of his children is of course a telling reference to how slaves and their children were denied education. In fact not only denied but it was expressly forbidden for them to be taught to read and write. In fact under slavery Mr. Anderson’s son Grundy would have had no chance to become a professional like a preacher.
Then comes the clincher Mr. Anderson talks about the injustice of working for no wages and being exploited in order for Colonel Anderson get richer. So Mr. Anderson says he will take the offer seriously if Colonel Anderson pays back minus expenses all of his and his wife’s wages. Which Mr. Anderson totes up to more than 11,000 dollars as a sign of good faith. Mr. Anderson notes that has an unpaid laborer and a piece of property he was just another piece of property and of course not entitled to wages. He then indirectly comments that he was defrauded. It is this rank exploitation that rankles Mr. Anderson the most. Here in freedom, which Mr. Anderson notes he already has and doesn’t need Colonel Anderson to get, that he Mr. Anderson is respected and earning a wage. While by implication As a slave he had neither the respect of others or a wage.
Finally there is a rather pointed reference to the fact that under slavery slave women were the potential victims of sexual exploitation. In fact this use of slave women who were in no position to say no was the source of great bitterness among slaves and ex slaves. Mr. Anderson reveals his fears for his daughters and gratitude that they are far away from that sort of possibility. Mr. Anderson refers rather bluntly to sexual exploitation of slaves on Colonel Anderson’s plantation.
Finally at the beginning of the letter and at the end Mr. Anderson makes sarcastic reference to Colonel Anderson's violent nature and his attempts by violence to prevent Mr. Anderson from escaping from slavery by violence and apparently almost killing him. Thus indicating that slavery was built on violence and coercion. Of course Mr. Anderson by making these comments is in effect telling Colonel Anderson that “given that you assaulted me, shot at me and tried to kill me rather than let me go free, why should I ever work for you!!”3
The letter rings true in terms of thinly disguised bitterness at being a slave and a determination to close the door and move on. One thing is also clear Colonel Anderson like so many others who have done others wrong seems to have been almost miraculously obtuse.
Despite the fact that the letter is actually on many sites all over the internet I felt I should repost it with my own thoughts, simply because it is a almost perfect putdown letter.
1. I didn’t need to do the research to check out the veracity of this letter. Commentators on a blog that posted the letter did so see Slacktivist Here.
2. Child, Maria L., Editor, The Freedman’s Book, Fields, Osgood & Co., Boston, 1869, pp. 265-267.
3. Books about what slavery was like which also describe the institutions many brutalities and sheer perversity are many. Here are a few. Stampp, Kenneth M., The Peculiar Institution, Vintage Books, New York, 1956, Kolchin, Peter, American Slavery, Revised Edition, Hill and Wang, New York, 2003, Blassingame, John W., The Slave Community, Revised Edition, Oxford University Press, 1979, Oakes, James, Slavery and Freedom, Vintage Books, New York, 1990, David, Paul A., et al, Reckoning with Slavery, Oxford University Press, New York, 1976.