Letter from ex-slave to ex-master, on occasion of a request to return to work

Jourdon Anderson, an ex-slave, penned this letter to his former owner, Colonel P.H. Anderson of Big Spring, Tennessee in 1865, after the Colonel wrote and asked him to return to service as a paid worker. The letter starts out seeming like a heartbreaking example of Stockholm Syndrome, as Jourdon Anderson recounts several wartime atrocities that the Colonel committed and expresses his gladness that the Colonel wasn't hanged for them. But by the letter's end, it is revealed as one of the great, all-time, understated sarcastic missives, with the final sentence, "Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me," being the icing on the cake.

Update: Derp -- this is a repost. On the other hand, it seems to be authentic.

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.

Letters of Note: To My Old Master (Thanks, graeme!)


  1. I wonder if this is real or not.  Not that I doubt that these or worse things went on during slaverly, but rather if a man who had attempted to kill another man would really write to him, urging him to return.

    Rather, I suspect that this is a put up job by the newspapers which were quick to publish this “letter” for him.

    1. I am totally with you. I think the sentiment is tremendous, but that the “letter” is a creation of the newspaper or people with an interest in such a letter. Too bad.

      1. The letter has a pretty good pedigree in some impressive scholarly work. See my post below for details. Further–it was certainly part of a widespread exchange of letters between former slaves and masters in the years after emancipation.

    2. This is not an argument for the veracity of the letter, but I wouldn’t be surprised if such things did indeed happen. Weirder things happened. Seriously, there’s no better word for the ways slave owners thought about the people they were enslaving. Beyond how messed up it is just to begin with, their thinking got really bizarre.

      Slave owners who, on their death beds (or presumed death beds) would order the slaves to forgive them for enslaving them so that they wouldn’t go to hell. A plantation owner who, on seeing the Union army drawing nearer, ordered the slaves to pray for a Union defeat…and then who beat them when the army kept drawing nearer, because they were obviously praying for the wrong side! Doublethink does not even begin to cover it.

    3. Not that I doubt that these or worse things went on during slaverly, but rather if a man who had attempted to kill another man would really write to him, urging him to return.

      Have you never known a single person in an abusive relationship? The abuser always tries to get the victim to come back for more. Often successfully.

    4. coryf Remember back in those days people believed in  giving second chances too. The Master thought he could sweet talk the gentleman to come back and its happened before when some folks return to their abusers after been coerced: only to be killed this time. It still happens up till now. So maybe you coryf need some soul searching about your feelings about other people.

  2. This reminds me of an observation of Sartre’s that Simone de Beauvoir mentions somewhere, to the effect that only the victim understands the truth of torture, because the torturer can lie to himself about it.

    Something else that comes to mind is that the same religion provided justification for slavery, arguments against slavery, comfort and a road to social standing for slaves, and also cultural colonization of slaves.

    1. I like the torture comment, but I still think it overlooks that the process of torture is destructive to the torturer as it is to the victim. They become something incapable of understanding their own actions. The willful blindness to carry such a thing out is the destruction of self as well.

      1. That would seem to be compatible with the remark, roughly speaking. Except for the “[as] destructive” part, which I think is bollocks.

      2. This assumes that the torturer is wilfully blind.  Those pressed or cajoled into service may be, but I bet there are plenty of sadists in that business who take great pride  in their work and enjoy it very much.

  3. I’ve been seeing this all over Twitter today and it still bowls me over. It needs to go in *every* textbook on American history.

    @coryf, I sorta doubt the newspaper theory b/c the level of language bounces back and forth so drastically. Some thoughts the author has clearly been working on for years; others are momentary toss-offs. I don’t think a professional writer of the day would allow such variation. My two cents (and a degree in American lit and history).

  4. I’ve seen this a long time ago, maybe even here. It’s really cool, I think some one dug up more history on it and it was co-written by the lawyer but not fake.

  5. Or rather Anderson dictated to the lawyer, I’m assuming because he could not write himself which wouldn’t have been unusual in that era.

      1. Huh? The alternative being that he had dictated it to the lawyer because he *was* better able to write it than the lawyer? Or did you misunderstand what I am saying. The documentation on the letter is that it was dictated to the lawyer. That’s not conjecture on my part, my correction was in order to be factual.

  6. “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.”

    Um… Jourdon? I think Mandy’s $2/week to your $6/week might actually serve to create a new score rather than forgive an old one.

    Your friend,

    1. Dear 2012,

      Thanks for your concern, but I’ve got this. Please understand that if you ever found yourself here in 1865 — and live like I live and see what I’ve seen — your head would explode and you would be dead in less than a day.

      Enjoy the air conditioning and antibiotics!


  7. I use this source with my college students. We talk a little about expectations that freed slaves had of Reconstruction, and how this differed from expectations of former slave holders. Then we talk about its reliability as a source. The oldest version I’ve found is up on Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=AN9tAAAAMAAJ&printsec=toc#v=onepage&q=anderson&f=false. It claims to be written “just as he dictated it” on August 7 1865. The book itself was originally published in 1869, by a group that wanted to increase support for freed slaves in their new lives. So while we don’t have the original letter, because it never existed in handwritten form, the letter does date back to the Reconstruction era. It might have been actually dictated by Anderson, or it might have been exaggerated or fabricated entirely by the book’s editor and her associates.

    Either way it is an interesting read. My favorite part – “They call her Mrs. Anderson.”

    1. If I am expected to believe that Jefferson built Monticello with his own blood sweat and tears, I can get past this letter without questioning it’s authenticity.

      But that’s because the letter doesn’t make me feel badly.

    2. Carolyn, see my post below. Unless Litwack through-cited from Woodson, he claims it appeared in two newspapers in 1865.

  8. This has appeared on BoingBoing before. http://boingboing.net/2010/08/10/a-letter-from-a-free.html

    I don’t think it’s a fake. It’s found from the website of more than one university history department, who you’d imagine would do some fact-checking. Other people have investigated the letter and found that it appeared in several newspapers in 1865. It’s said to have been dictated by the former slave. People with the names mentioned have all been found on the census. There’s really not much to support the notion it’s fake, except that it *seems* too good to be true.

    1. The soft racism of low expectations, or something like that.

      I happen to believe it is 100% authentic, and 100% possible.

    2. Maybe it seems suspicious because people know there were laws forbidding slaves from being literate. However, I suppose nothing stopped them from being eloquent.

  9. I’ll be honest – the last paragraph, where he asks about the safety of his daughters (and refers to “poor Matilda and Catherine”) sent chills down my spine.
    Three guesses as to what happened to those two. Note also that they are NOT living with Jourdon, Mandy, and the kids in Dayton.
    Seriously impressed by this. This was a righteous smackdown.

    1. Exactly. The restrained understatement is highly plausible, seems to me. A man like this was born into restraint, in more ways than one. Having a highly developed capacity for restraint, and patience, was the only way to survive.

  10. This letter was brought into the public eye via UC Berkeley historian Leon Litwack, who reprinted the letter in its entirety in his _Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery_ (Vintage Books, 1980), 333-335. Litwack gives a full history of the letter, starting with Carter Woodson’s _The Mind of the Negro as Reflected in Letters Written During the Crisis 1800-1860_ (Washington, DC, 1926) and ending with the original publication, in the Cincinnati Commercial, as reprinted in the New York Tribune, 22 August 1865. (Been in the Storm So Long, 596)

    As a side note: Litwack was the scholar who first blew my mind with the power of history. I remember my 18-year old self sitting in his Black history class at Berkeley in 1987 and him showing slides of lynchings. Just relentless–one horrific image after another of laughing and smiling white families surrounding tortured and mutilated black bodies–and feeling, for the first time in my life, my whiteness. Not merely as guilt, but as a fact of my self and my history, and by extension, that OTHERS had race and history too.

    Isn’t the point of education to wake ourselves up to ourselves and to dislodge our own self from the center of the universe? To gain empathy? If so, this scholar and this letter are the highest form of education.

  11. Love the letter.

    Regarding the update to the post: “derp” is not that awesome of a word. “oops” would work as well without being ableist?

      1. “derp”, in this case, could be expanded to ”I’m such a retard!” This is disputed in various places around the webs, but it doesn’t seem a good idea to take up, to me.

          1. Ugh, I’m reallllly not wanting to get into a debate about this here, I just wanted to let the poster know that it’s been highlighted as problematic by some. You can disagree, evs. I’m not into “stupid” as an insult but I wouldn’t leave a comment saying so.

  12. Re: authenticity – No one can actually “prove” authorship 232 years after the fact and without access to the original draft, but the letter appeared in contemporary newspapers in August of 1865 (I was only able to find re-printings, since I don’t have access to the Ohio newspapers, but the earliest reprinting I found was Aug 22, 1865, NY Daily Tribune) so it’s verifiably as old as it purports to be.

    And if you look in the Censuses, death certificates and other easily accessible public records for Dayton Ohio and Lebanon Tennessee, you’d find that all of the people mentioned in the letter were real people: from Jourdan, his wife Amanda, thier children Jane and Felix Grundy, Col. Patrick Henry Anderson, his wife Mary Ann and their children Henry and Martha (among others), and even secondary characters like Valentine Winters (Dayton lawyer) and George Carter (a carpenter in Lebanon TN). Even details like the fact that Mandy worked for the Col. for twenty years can be verified – Mandy’s maiden name was apparently McGregor, which happens to correspond to the maiden name of the Mrs. Col. Anderson (Mary Ann McGregor) and 20 years corresponds to the period between when the Colonel and his wife married in 1844, to 1864 when Jourdan and Mandy apparently left the plantation.Every verifiable detail in that letter all points to the fact that it could not have been written without the active co-authorship and participation of Mr. Anderson, regardless of who edited it.  I’m really getting tired of how every time this amazing piece of writing pops up on the net, a dozen lazy-asses who can’t be bothered to do a modicum of research pop up and insist it must be a fake.

    1. Thanks for all of that info! Very helpful.

      I’ve seen this letter pop up before too, along with lots of (white?) commenters doubting its authenticity. It does make me wonder about, or rather suspect, their motivations and/or assumptions. It does not make me wonder about their understanding of the conditions of slavery, and what it drove the enslaved to do, and to be.

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