Slavery in America: Letter From a Free Man

A former slave sends his “Old Master” fierce words, dry wit—and a bill.

from lettersofnote.com

Slavery in America: Letter From a Free ManMark Humphrey/AP Photo
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. 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. 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 payday 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.

Editor’s note: Things did not end well for Colonel Anderson. His crops failed, forcing him to sell his plantation for very little. He died two years later, at age 44. Jourdon survived him by nearly four decades, living well into his 70s.

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  • Your Comments

    • salim

      one thing that came to mind through reading the article is a book that includes little-knows dealings during this time in trying to helpd the south cause & at the same time planning getting lincoln killed long before he became president.
      you can read it free online, just search for The Secre Terrorists, authored by Bill Hughes.
      be blessed!

    • Ms. B.

      I am a history teacher and I intend to use this letter in my class when we learn about slavery.  I am very grateful to the Reader’s Digest for making it available. There is nothing as good as hearing something “straight from the horse’s mouth.” We certainly get a glimpse into what Jourdan Anderson’s life was like, and his words make history come alive.

    • J Reid

      My question is on the age and dates.  If I read correctly, the land owner, Mr Anderson, died at age 44 and the latter from Jourdan Anderson the former slave, when figuring what he was owed, had worked for him for 32 years.  That would have made the land owner 12 years old when he as a farmer, land owner and slave owner.

      I agree that that were attrocities during the time of slavery but there were attrocities all over the world at that time and they were not all in/from Africa.  There are many cases where persons were bought at the slave market to SAVE them from a live of misery and to keep families together

      We need to focus on the present and what we can do to make life better for all.  STOP FOCUSING IN THE PAST.
       

      • Toni Johnson

        “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

        P.S. There’s no need to take the narrative of the article personally to the point of yelling on a public forum.

    • J Reid

      My question is on the age and dates.  If I read correctly, the land owner Mr Anderson, died at age 44 and the letter said the former slave, when figuring what he was owed, had worked for him for 32 years.  That would have made the land owner 12 when he was farmer, land owner and slave owner. 
      I agree there were attrocities during the time of slavery but there were attrocities all over the world at that time and they were not from Africa. 
      We need to focus on the present and do what we can to make it better for all.  Stop focusing on the past. 
       

    • J Reid

      My question is on the age and dates.  If I read correctly, the land owner Mr Anderson, died at age 44 and the letter said the former slave, when figuring what he was owed, had worked for him for 32 years.  That would have made the land owner 12 when he was farmer, land owner and slave owner. 
      I agree there were attrocities during the time of slavery but there were attrocities all over the world at that time and they were not from Africa. 
      We need to focus on the present and do what we can to make it better for all.  Stop focusing on the past. 
       

      • http://www.facebook.com/stclared St Clare D. Avery

        We learn from the past to not create the same errors in the future.

    • J Reid

      My question is on the age and dates.  If I read correctly, the land owner Mr Anderson, died at age 44 and the letter said the former slave, when figuring what he was owed, had worked for him for 32 years.  That would have made the land owner 12 when he was farmer, land owner and slave owner. 
      I agree there were attrocities during the time of slavery but there were attrocities all over the world at that time and they were not from Africa. 
      We need to focus on the present and do what we can to make it better for all.  Stop focusing on the past. 
       

    • William W. McCollum

      I did not intend to criticize Jourdon Anderson.  I believe he was an intelligent and determined man who followed through and made sure his children got the education he was denied.  If the census was accurate about his illiteracy, it is quite likely that one of his children took down his words and conveyed them in the letter.  Either way, I agree that the message was witty and unmistakable. 

      • Anonymous

        @William W. McCollum – Census Takers can be biased and manipulate the data they collect. It happened to me during 2000 Census. I truthfully & acurately filled out & mailed back the long form. Several weeks later… I arrive at home after work to find a Census Taker sitting on my porch waiting. She claimed that my form had not been received and demanded to do it then, she filled out a new form and gave different classification than what I had put on original form. It was a VA County. So I can relate how in 1870 in OH, the census taker could be biased to newly freed slave and their level of literacy. Census is to get a headcount of citizens, other than that, it can be manipulated.

    • http://twitter.com/kamorzan kathie rosello

      @William W. McCollum…..Does it really matter whether J.A. wrote the letter?  If he dictated it, wrote it or whistled it,I’m sure he got his point across to his low leveled “EX-master”.

    • William W. McCollum

      Jourdon Anderson may have dictated this letter, but he did not write it.  He was enumerated in the 1870 census of Dayton, Ohio as a 45 year old hostler who could neither read nor write.  He did have adult children in his household who were literate  

      • http://www.facebook.com/stclared St Clare D. Avery

        And SO??? At least someone was there to write his convictions!!

      • no more violence

        Is a person unable to learn to read and write once they reach the venerable age of 45? And were census takers always honest in their estimation of others’ abilities?