A letter from a freed man to his former slave owner

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36 Responses to “A letter from a freed man to his former slave owner”

  1. Chris says:

    I still suspect it’s too good to be true.

  2. catherine says:

    Re: The math discrepancy: This is a condensed version of the full letter. The rest of that paragraph explains why the numbers don’t work out precisely.

    “At 25 dollars a month for me, and 2 dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,608. 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.”

    Full text: http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2010/08/a-letter-dated-august-7.html?cid=6a00d8341c582a53ef0134860c4e8e970c#comment-6a00d8341c582a53ef0134860c4e8e970c

  3. jjasper says:

    Snopes confirms it’s most likely an authentic letter. If it was a work of fiction, it was written in the period directly following the Civil War, not recently.

    Ta-Nehisi Coates over at The Atlantic has been citing primary sources from slaves who were alive during the Civil War for some time. Here’s a recent one by a guest blogger

    About this time I had been reading so much about the “Yankees” I was very anxious to see them. The whites would tell their colored people not to go to the Yankees, for they would harness them to carts and make them pull the carts around, in place of horses. I asked grandmother, one day, if this was true. She replied, “Certainly not!” That the white people did not want slaves to go over to the Yankees, and told them these things to frighten them. “Don’t you see those signs pasted about the streets? One reading, ‘I am a rattlesnake; if you touch me I will strike!’ Another reads, ‘I am a wild cat! Beware!,’ etc. These are warnings to the North, so don’t mind what the white people say.” I wanted to see these wonderful “Yankees” so much, as I heard my parents say the Yankee was going to set all the slaves free. Oh, how those people prayed for freedom! I remember, one night, my grandmother went out into the suburbs of the city to a church meeting, and they were fervently singing this old hymn:

    Yes, we all shall be free
    Yes, we all shall be free
    Yes, we all shall be free
    When the Lord shall appear

    when the police came in and arrested all who were there, saying they were planning freedom, and sang “the Lord” in place of “Yankee,” to blind any one who might be listening, Grandmother never forgot that night. although she did not stay in the guard-house, as she sent to her guardian, who came at once for her; but this was the last meeting she ever attended out of the city proper.

    On April 1, 1862, about the time the Union soldiers were firing on Fort Pulaski, I was sent out into the country to my mother. I remember what a roar and din the guns made. They jarred the earth for miles. The fort was at last taken by them. Two days after the taking of Fort Pulaski, my uncle took his family of seven and myself to St. Catherine Island. We landed under the protection of the Union fleet. and remained there two weeks. when about thirty of us were taken aboard the gunboat P________ to be transferred to St. Simon’s Island; and at last to my unbounded joy, I saw the “Yankee.”

  4. gwailo_joe says:

    Agreed: almost too good to be true; but why not?

    George Carter was pretty awesome too.

  5. Felton says:

    Love it!

  6. IamInnocent says:

    This makes me wonder what’s better for the people of a given time, of any time really: historical exactitude or a good story?

  7. jeligula says:

    It is interesting to note that he values his own labor much higher than that of his wife. His math is off by $88 in his favor.

    • Anonymous says:

      Wrong. Either it’s off by $79.14 in PH Anderson’s favor: 32 x 12 x $25 = $9600, then 20 x (365.25/7) x $2 = $2087.14, comes out to $11,687.14; or, instead of using 52.2 weeks/year (365.25/7), he used 50.2. I’d guess the latter, since clearly he wouldn’t have been charging for his 2 weeks/year vacation.

    • Anonymous says:

      If you read the full letter, you’ll see that those are their then current wages.

      Also, his name appears as Jordan in the original, not Jourdon. Y’all at BB might want to fix that, and include the “P.S.” that precedes that last awesome line about thanking George Carter.

    • Anonymous says:

      Whose math is off? 32 years at $300 a year is $9,600; 20 years at $104 a year is $2,080; put it together and you should get $11,680. Jourdon would be off by $82 to his detriment not his favour, but it is more likely that Maggie transposed the ‘…80’ to ‘…08′ in her BoingBoing post. Maggie also misspelled his name as ‘Jordan’ rather than ‘Jourdon’, which was the correct spelling for his time.

      You will also find this letter included in Leon F. Litwack’s 1979 book, ‘Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery,’ on page 333, near the end of chapter 6. You can find this 5 star rated book on Amazon.com, naturally.

      http://www.amazon.com/Been-Storm-So-Long-Aftermath/dp/0394743989#_

      or you can read the entire letter here:

      http://www.sewanee.edu/faculty/Willis/Civil_War/documents/Oldmaster.html

      • Anonymous says:

        The full letter is delicious, but more confrontational than the excerpt makes it out to be:
        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.

        Wonder if ol’ Colonel Anderson had a rage-induced aneurysm when he reached that line? :-)

    • Anonymous says:

      OK… Having an engineering mind the number stuck out immediately to me! This post made me go back and check the math. For anyone checking the math! LOL!
      Jordan – 32yrs * 12mo * $25 = $9600
      Mandy – 20yrs * 52mo * $2 = $2080
      Total = $11,680 (Jordan quoted $11,608 – $72 short)

      • Anonymous says:

        Considering how much thought he put into it, I bet you those $72 it wasn’t his mistake, but the newspaper’s error. Probably just a typo.

  8. Scrotch says:

    Here is the full text of the letter, as I typed it in from the linked image:

    [start]
    Letter from a Freedman to his Old Master,

    The following is a genuine document. It was dictated by the old servant, and contains his ideas and forms of expression.

    [Cincinnati Commercial.
    Dayton, Ohio, August 7, 1865

    To my Old Master, Col. P. H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee.

    SIR: I got your letter and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jordan [sic], 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 hourse [sic]. I suppose the 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 that you are still living. It would do me good to go back tot he dear old home again and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Alton[?], 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 was, 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 at 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 out wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old sores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years, at $25 a month for me, and $2 a week for Mandy. Our earnings would amount to $11,680. 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 poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve and die if it came 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.

    From your old servant, JOURDON ANDERSON.

    P.S.–Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting [at me. ? unclear]
    [end]

    The story in the next column, “Spiritualism vs. Orthodoxy”, on a public debate help at Metropolitan Hall, is a great look at what used to be newsworthy in a vanished age.

  9. Anonymous says:

    love this letter and i agree with earlier post that this it was either suggested or penned by someone else, possibly the lawyer mentioned. the wages aspect comes across as particularly litigious and sounds very much like a lawyer having a bit of fun. my lawyer directed me to send a very similarly drafted response to a former employer…..

  10. lionelbrits says:

    Very modern writing style, even considering 1865. But it probably only seems that way to me because I have mostly read formal writing from that era.

    • freshacconci says:

      It’s an informal writing style which probably makes sense since he would have been uneducated and the letter was dictated. It was written presumably in the manner he spoke.

  11. scionofgrace says:

    I salute anybody that can fit that much snark in such (seemingly) polite, simple language. Love the bit about the gun at the end.

    In the same vein: it may not be a letter from a former slave so much as a letter on behalf of a former slave, but I would recommend reading Paul’s Epistle to Philemon (the Book of Philemon) in the New Testament.

    Onesimus was a runaway slave who met Paul, became a Christian, helped Paul out, and then was going back to his master Philemon on Paul’s suggestion. However, Paul wasn’t stupid. He wrote an apparently polite letter to Philemon to tell him a) what a great guy Onesimus was, b) that Philemon should free him and treat him like a brother, and c) Paul himself was going to stop by soon to see how everyone was doing. The implied threat is delicious.

  12. endymion says:

    I want to believe… but… it just doesn’t have that ring of truth, you know?

  13. Baldhead says:

    Can’t be real. He never once said “sho’ ’nuff” or “massa” and we all know that’s how slaves talked right?

  14. jasonbrush says:

    Fantastic. I do hope this is true. If you calculate inflation from 1865 based on the wage rate for unskilled labor, he’s asking for $1,370,000.00 in today’s dollars — a living wage of $68,500 per year. http://j.mp/dgnDAJ

  15. Anonymous says:

    is it just me, or is boingboing particularly wonderful today?

  16. _nemo_ says:

    I just don’t understand why the entire letter wasn’t quoted. It’s not much longer, and there are further barbs like:

    “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 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.”

  17. Anonymous says:

    From the full text of the letter (printed by Scrotch above), Jordan likely had two daughters, Matilda and Catherine, who were most likely raped by slaveholders. Wonder how much monetary penalty should be charged for that moral outrage? More than eleven grand, I should think.

  18. jonathan_v says:

    @jasonbrush • #8

    I think that number is wrong; it should be computed in comparison to migrant/illegal alien labor — ie the jobs that people don’t want, and the jobs that flourished in the lack of slavery. its probably more along the lines of 15-25k poverty level.

    i’m not trying to be snarky, i just think your numbers are based on what someone /should/ make, vs what someone probably /would/ make.

  19. GeekMan says:

    This made my day. Almost makes me wish I could read the undoubtedly douchey letter from the former owner: “Well, no hard feelings, eh? How’d you like a job?”

    Almost.

  20. dcamsam says:

    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.

    This would be the Civil War era equivalent of revealing a FarmVille addiction, yes?

    • Anonymous says:

      Farmville… with slaves! Wonderful ironic understatement in Jordan’s letter about P.H. shooting at him and all. P.H. sounds like a real piece of work.

    • Tdawwg says:

      Properly speaking, their “Farmville addiction” constituted the entire culture of the Antebellum South.

  21. Stefan Jones says:

    I like Frederick Douglass’s term for the Civil War:

    The “Slaveholders’ Uprising.”

  22. Anonymous says:

    I bet P.H. Anderson probably didn’t thank George Carter at all.

    “‘ 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.’

    This would be the Civil War era equivalent of revealing a FarmVille addiction, yes?”

    No, I think it would be more like the post Civil War era equivalent of saying don’t mess with me because I have some serious dirt on you.

  23. Cartophiliac says:

    FWIW

    I am a librarian in Dayton, Ohio, and Jordan Anderson appears in the 1866 city directory, as does V. Winters… a banker.

  24. Anonymous says:

    “V. Winters, Esq.” was almost certainly Valentine Winters, a well-known Dayton, Ohio banker (and ancestor of Jonathan Winters. Who knew?).

    http://www.daytonhistorybooks.com/page/page/4502431.htm

  25. InclinedPlane says:

    In the same vein, the autobiographical “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave” is an excellent and inspiring read:

    http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/Literature/Douglass/Autobiography/

    This part is particularly moving:

    This battle with Mr. Covey was the turningpoint in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.

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