The Freedmen’s Epistles

In today’s #BlackExcellenceMonth post, I bring something both old and new that’s pretty exciting to me. Letters from a former slave, Jourdon Anderson, to his master have been circulating around the internets for a few days and they struck me as pretty amazing. If you haven’t seen it, I hate taking up so much text space, but here it is:

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[266] 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.,[267] 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.

Look at that. That’s from 1865. To me it’s amazing, and it’s pretty fortunate that the letter resurfaced right at the beginning of the BEST BLACK HISTORY MONTH EVER. Just read it. First of all….this was a Black man who mastered passive-aggressive trolling almost 150 years ago. He’s like this blog’s direct predecessor. The sarcasm here is so amazing. And this guy is so freaking BALLSY. He asked for $11k in back pay….which in today’s dollars is about $250,000. This dude asked for a QUARTER MILLION dollars from his old master a few months before slavery was even made illegal throughout the states. It’s crazy…you can almost see the sneer on Jourdon’s face as he dictated this to whomever was literate enough to write it. It made my day. He was like…the first Black comedian.

Jourdon Anderson?

This significance and context of this letter really had me floored. But of course, there were those who doubted its authenticity. It seemed too perfectly timed, and too well-done to be authentic. But then I did some digging, and found out where some others had done some digging, and found out that it seems to be pretty legit. At least Jourdon Anderson was a real person, and the master he wrote to was real. I found that the letter was a part of a collection done by abolitionist Lydia Maria Child called “The Freedmen’s Book.” It was published in 1865 and entered into the public domain when it became part of the Library of Congress. Actually the full text can be found here. I even got it in Kindle form! This collection has some real gems, and really gives a sense of what the world looked like to all sides; slaves, abolitionists, racists, etc. and keeps us from always having to rely on conjecture in wondering what the world looked like. There are great stories about folks like Benjamin Banneker and some lesser-known folks like our hero Jourdon Anderson. Did you know that Banneker produced the first American almanac? One that Thomas Jefferson based his more famous series of almanacs on? This thing has some amazing poems and is a treasure trove unexplored, for the most part.

I found the story of a brilliant slave named George Horton to be pretty amazing. This was a man who lived in my beloved Chapel Hill, one of the most liberal towns in the state, and home of the very liberal University of Chapel Hill, who was a slave denied his freedom and who died trying to make enough money from his poetry to set himself free. An excerpt from one of his poems:

“Say unto foul oppression, Cease!Ye tyrants, rage no more;
And let the joyful trump of peaceNow bid the vassal soar.
“O Liberty! thou golden prize,So often sought by blood,
We crave thy sacred sun to rise,The gift of Nature’s God.
“Bid Slavery hide her haggard face,And barbarism fly;
I scorn to see the sad disgrace,In which enslaved I lie.
“Dear Liberty! upon thy breastI languish to respire;
And, like the swan unto her nest,I’d to thy smiles retire.”
And they said we were an inferior race? This man could have been Shakespeare in another time…and another skin. Another poem from him:
Creation fires my tongue!Nature, thy anthems raise,
And spread the universal songOf thy Creator’s praise.
When each revolving wheelAssumed its sphere sublime,
Submissive Earth then heard the peal,And struck the march of time.
The march in heaven begun,And splendor filled the skies,
When Wisdom bade the morning sunWith joy from chaos rise.
The angels heard the tuneThroughout creation ring;
They seized their golden harps as soon,And touched on every string.
When time and space were young,And music rolled along,
The morning stars together sung,And heaven was drowned in song.
Look, I don’t want to post everything from the book on here, but this is DEFINITELY something we didn’t get to see in our Black History Month lessons in class. At the very least it’s inspiration. Inspiration that even from the time of slavery, we have been striving to be more, despite setbacks meant to cripple and destroy. Sometimes I just need motivation, and seeing the stories of these folks who literally had nothing inspires me. There are also letters from whites so full of hatred that you can be certain that it’s impossible that all of that hatred has gone away in a mere 150 years. These letters show both how far we’ve come…and how far we have to go. They truly do give a bit of an insight on what Black Excellence really means. And for that I am appreciative. Enjoy them, and get them on Kindle. They’re free!
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