To My Old Master: Decoding a Race Relations/Blog Hit And What It Really Means

So you’ve probably been reading, sharing and looking at this gem from 1865.  It apparently appeared in the New York Daily Tribune: 

“Colonel” P.H. Anderson asked his former servant, Jourdon Anderson to basically come on back home and be his laborer.  Mr. Jourdan, dictating his letter, responded in kind:

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 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.

So I am struggling NOT to add my own humorous “Cliff Notes,” version to this text.  It would be fun–and probably get me more readers, but that’s an iffy prospect given the seriousness of my project as it stands.  So maybe another time.  Again I’m struggling not to given my jocular nature, but let’s leave it at that.

As a living history interpreter who brings enslaved people’s lives to the present, and I know my friend and fellow team member, Nicole Moore can attest to this; a lot of people think they understand slavery and the lives of enslaved people.   It’s convenient to make parallels between ourselves and our experiences (our “lynching stories.” as we call them) and those of our ancestors.  However, I’d like to say here and now that one of the most salient things that an interpreter mentor ever said to me–Mr. Robert Watson of Colonial Williamsburg–is that usually, from day to day, our lives are better than one minute spent in slavery.  

I understand the share-able appeal of this letter.  It’s heroic.  It’s by a “cool slave.”    We all want that version of history.  Need a great example, try Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks cartoon and the “Catcher Freeman,” episode where Grandpa and Uncle Ruckus argue over Catcher Freeman’s status–is he a cool rebel or a faithful attack dog for Massa?  Grandpa’s story prevails with two distinct versions ultimately focusing on enslaved people as rebellious.  My personal favorite is the scene where they laugh at their “Master”‘s repeated demands while picnicking—-and tell jokes a la Def Comedy Jam while rolling around on the ground to their heart’s content.  If it was really like that……then sure great, awesome—-we would never have needed any of the M’s–Martin Delany, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, or Marcus Garvey….and the greatest M of all–our Mothers….

This pattern has been widely reflected in our public discourse about our history.  Slavery is meh, but Underground Railroad gets us jazzed.  It is almost as if you have to couch slavery in something else before people will pay attention or listen.  We have centered our discussions about slavery in terms of resistance, and there’s nothing wrong with that–so much as you talk about survival.  It took such genius to get out of slavery alive, you don’t even know.  No textbook can really convey the negotiated strategies that enslaved people employed from day to day.  There is still such a sense of shame about slavery, such a reticence, such an unwilingness to address it in the context of a culturally-defining moment that we really need to make an effort as a society to call out those elments of the Peculiar Institution that are not often discussed.

I could be wrong on some of the details, but Mr. Anderson apparently took advantage of the occupying Federal forces that came to middle Tennessee during the Civil War.  You may not know this but huge swaths of the Confederacy were lost to the Federal army fairly early on in the conflict.  These areas became havens for contrabands–enslaved Blacks escaping the plantations with their families—especiallly once the Emancipation Proclamation was announced, obstensibly liberating enslaved people living in rebel territory.  Colonel Anderson must have thought Jourdan a traitor for joining and working for the Yankees.

Jourdan’s first message to his former owner is—-I’m an American, and you’re not.  He calls him out for his defiance of the United States and his active participation in the rebellion against its authority.  The next message is “I’m doing just fine on my own and I like it that way, and I’m paid for what I earn.”  Enslaved people knew and definitely resented that they were making people wealthy without much or any remuneration.  Any planter with say 25-50 able bodied laborers was the envy of his neighbors and weilded authority over a work force that could make him a cornderstone of his community.  This is to say nothing of the very very very few plantes who had enslaved people in the hundreds or even a thousand plus whose fabulous wealth has been translated into plantation house museums and vast fantasies of Southern plantation life that produce wealth and tourism dollars to this day.  If the goal was to be part of an America where you could make money and pass it down to your children and their descendants, then enslaved African Americans understood they were missing out on a key deciding factor that would affect their people’s legacy and history for the long term.  This system would ensure a burning, defined financial inequality.

So Jourdan’s retort is, “if you’re going to treat me so good…you have to pay me, and on top of that pay me back for the money you owe me for time served as your slave.”  Jourdan clearly references Old Testament/Hebrew Bible style language that admonish the unfair treatment and unjustice towards laborers.  He emphasizes that taking away his ability for his family and children to build on what they have already earned is a sin.  Furthermore, Jourdan understands that being “treated good,” is not really all its cracked up to be.  One had to submit to white supremacy, one had to accept substandard food, housing, clothing and perpetual debt–and still not have access to any of the luxuries or perks of being free.  That was unacceptable to Mr. Anderson and his wife Amanda, and he was wise to test his former owner by saying, “when you give me back what I’m owed, then we can talk since I know thats the proof you’ll be sincere.”—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.

While we are not sure of the identity of the two young women he mentions, it is clear that Mr. Anderson is referencing the open rape, molestation and abuse of young women of color on plantations.  As a father and as a proud Black man, he refuses to watch his girls be degraded and treated like free-source prostitutes.  I sympathize with Mr Anderson–many of the women in my family were forced to bear children from their teenage years onward from white men.  These were not loving, equality-based, mature adult relationships.  This was outright war against enslaved men and the stability of the Black family. It was a cheap form of release from Victorian sexual frustration, but it was also a means of power and control, not unlike what you’ve seen in Darfur or in Bosnia-Herzegovinia.  It is beautiful to see tht Mr. Jourdan Anderson puts his life on the line rather than see his daughters or wife disrespected.

The most salient part to me is this.  Mr. Anderson makes it plain–I want my back pay minus a few legitimate expenses; I will not accept violence or inequality from you;  I want the rights of my daughters and wife to be left alone respected; and I want there to be universal education so that Colored people can move forward.  Mr. Anderson doesn’t ask for very much. Not long after this letter was drafted and publicized, Tennesse would unfortunately see itself as the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and other white “night-rider” groups that terrorized the formerly enslaved. Slavery would continue for most Black families under the guise of sharecropping, teachers and businessmen and faith leaders were lynched, and schooling was at best–separate and substandard.  Mr. Anderson was wise–he stayed put.

Part of our goal in making this tour and the work around it happen is to open people’s eyes to the reality Mr. Jourdan Anderson and his wife Amanda and their children had to endure.  As their foodways and resistance strategies bear out, these were smart, practical, self-reliant, self-respecting people–not victims.  There are so many lessons this one letter can teach us about or own condition today.  We owe it to our children and their children to live up to the values that Mr. Jourdan and my ancestors and many of yours laid down.  This is the best way to honor this letter and the millions like it that could have been written, if only history had given us the chance.  We have a chance–thats what makes us our ancestors best fantasy.

Maybe we should go to Big Springs…

Help us tell our story and keep Mr. Jourdan’s legacy alive:

For genelogical update on the Anderson Family story, please visit:


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