by Dexter Harper
Today we will deviate from the intent of this series which focuses primarily on black history from the 1900’s to the present by examining a letter written by a former salve to his master. The letter appeared in the August 22, 1865 edition of the New York Daily Tribune and was taken from an undated edition of a Cincinnati, OH newspaper. The newspaper makes clear that the letter was dictated and not written by Jourdon Anderson.
Jourdon Anderson was the slave of Colonel P.H. Anderson of Big Spring, Tennessee. After gaining his freedom Jourdon sets out building a new life for himself and his family. Jourdon Anderson becomes gainfully employed in Ohio and his children are attending school and the entire family attends church regularly.
A year passes and Jourdon receives a letter from his former master Colonel P.H. Anderson asking him to return and work for him. Surprisingly Jourdon replies back and it’s the measured tone of his response that gives dignity to his letter.
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,
After reading the letter attributed to Jourdon Anderson, Michael Johnson, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, did a bit of digging into old slave and census records. He says he has discovered evidence that the people involved in this correspondence are real, and that the letter is probably authentic.
According to Johnson, the 1860 federal slave schedules list a P H Anderson in Wilson County, Tenn., with 32 slaves; several of them credibly the people mentioned in the letter, of the correct genders and ages, Johnson said, though the names of slaves were not listed in the schedules.
“That in itself is not conclusive proof that the letter is real, but the slave owner was real and he had plenty of slaves,” Johnson wrote in an email to The Huffington Post.
Johnson said better evidence that the letter is almost certainly real is that, according to the 1870 federal manuscript census, a Jourdan Anderson, his wife and four school-age children are listed as living in the 8th ward of Dayton, Ohio. Johnson said the records state that Anderson is a hostler, 45, and that he and his family are listed as “black.” Furthermore, according to those records, Anderson, his wife and two older children, ages 19 and 12, were born in Tennessee. Two younger children, ages 5 and 1, were born in Ohio, “which would in turn have him and his family showing up in Ohio at about the right time to have escaped during the Civil War,” Johnson said.
The professor said that Jourdan Anderson could not read or write, according to 1870 manuscript census. But the letter could have been written by his 19-year-old daughter, Jane, who was listed as literate in 1870.
“The letter probably reflected his sentiments,” Johnson said, who added that Anderson lived in a neighborhood surrounded by working-class white neighbors who were literate, according to the census. It is also possible one of them may have written the letter for him, Johnson said.
But the person who most likely wrote the dictated letter is another person listed in Anderson’s letter.
In the letter Anderson refers to a V. Winters. According to Johnson a person by the name of Valentine Winters, a “barrister” in Dayton’s 3rd ward who claimed property worth $697,000, also appears in the 1870 federal census.
“He may well have been the person who actually wrote the letter since he is the person Jourdan Anderson asks his former master to send his wages to,” Johnson said.