Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A Former Slave Writes to His Old Owner

 Four months after the Civil War ended, a now former slave owner, Colonel P. H. Anderson wrote to his old slave, Jourdon Anderson. He asked him to return to the plantation to work. The Negro, as then called, had since moved to Ohio, where he found work for pay, and supported his family.

Jourdon replied in a letter of his own:

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 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 Col. 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 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 $25 a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy, —the folks here 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 Col. 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 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 are sincerely 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 has 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 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 Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve, and die if it comes 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.

P.S. —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

Photo from author's collection; feel free to use it if you like.

Source: Reprinted in Lydia Maria Child, The Freedmen’s Book (Boston: Tickenor and Fields, 1865), 265–67.


I do have some good materials on slavery available for sale if you’re interested, at “Middle School History and Tips for Teachers” on TpT.

These include:

Selected passages from Uncle Tom’s Cabin

“Tale of an American Slave,” based on three autobiographies penned by Frederick Douglass (he uses the N-word; so I quote him).

“A Slave Child Remembers,” which includes details from Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery


How Bad Was Slavery? Part I

How Bad Was Slavery? Part II

I had great success with all of these readings in my classes; but the latter pair might scare other teachers away. I sat down with all my books at home, and headed for the library for supporting information. I took stories about slavery that sounded relatively mild or even “good,” and put them in one pile of notes. I took all the worst examples and put them in a second pile.

Then I wrote about slavery in two ways. In Part I, I use stories like one about Derry Coburn. Owned by Daniel Boone, Coburn often went hunting with his master, both men carrying rifles, and when Boone once sprung a powerful bear trap and caught his hand, Coburn didn’t run away or shoot Boone. He helped free his hand and bandaged him up. I quote Solomon Northrup (whose story was the basis for the movie, Twelve Years a Slave), who says of one master, Ms. McCoy, that she was, “A lovely girl, some twenty years of age...she is beloved by all her slaves, and good reason indeed have they to be thankful that they have fallen into such gentle hands.” 

She was “an angel of kindness.”

In discussion, my students almost always failed to catch the implication of Northrup’s words.

If they were thankful (relatively speaking) to be owned by McCoy, what about some of the worst owners—the sadists, the sexual predators, and the slave ship captains, like Theodore Canot.

When one of his slaves comes down with smallpox, Canot orders the boy poisoned, rather than risk having the rest of his valuable cargo infected. Canot justifies his decision as a “necessary murder.”

Part II, based on the same sources as Part I, paints a far different picture and I used these readings to show students the necessity of gathering as much information as possible before drawing conclusions.

Again: both Part I and Part II have usages of the N-word, because both are based almost entirely on contemporary accounts.

Also of interest:

African-Americans during the American Revolution

“A Twilight between Liberty and Freedom” which describes countless facets of Jim Crow life: from separate blood banks to separate taxis to separate military units to Jim Crow homes for the blind.

Again: the latter has the N-word in a quote.

(If I was still teaching, and I had any doubt, I’d probably ink the last few letters out on the master copy before reproducing them for class.)

Andrew Jackson's house. Author's collection.

Author's collection; feel free to use.

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