Usually when you read about the slave era, it is a depressing endeavour. It is a part of history that needs to be studied so that we don’t make the same mistakes in future, but it can be awfully glum. There are lots of stories about the mistreatment of people, the separation of families, the hardships. Even stories about the white people who tried to help black slaves are morose, because a lot of them just didn’t end well. I will admit there are some stories that are actually uplifting, stories of hope in the face of such grim times, but most of the time it’s just sad.
But then there are stories like this one. A letter from a freed slave to his former master has been discovered. The former master, Colonel P.H. Anderson had recently asked his runaway slave Jourdan Anderson to return. After Jourdan had run away, he gained his freedom and this was his response to Col. Anderson.
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. 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. 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.
Translation: Sir, I am so surprised that you remembered me, since you owned hundreds of slaves. I guess the one that got away will always stick in your memory. I can’t imagine why you think I would come back to work for you since I am now a free man. Who would want to work for free when they can get paid? Also, you tried to shoot me, so what makes me think you won’t try to shoot me as soon as I come back? I thought the Yankees would have hung your sorry ass anyway.
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 my wife and children. The children go to school and are learning well. 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.
Translation: I want to know more about this job you say you have for me. I hope you realize that we’re not interested in working in the cotton fields anymore. Right now I am getting an honest salary with benefits. My kids even go to school, something you would not let us do, purposely trying to keep us uneducated and dumb. So please, tell me more about this supposed job. If it doesn’t pay more than what I am getting now, don’t bother writing back.
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. My wife 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 my wife twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for my wife, 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 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.
Translation: Thanks for offering me my freedom, but it’s a day late and a dollar short. I already got my free papers, no thanks to you. But if you really want to make good on this offer, you can pay me and my wife for our back wages. We slaved for you for a total of 52 years between us, so that comes to about $11,680 you owe us, minus clothing and the doctor’s visits and not including interest. If you really want us to come back, then send the money to our attorney (yes, we have an attorney). All those years we worked for you and you didn’t give us anything, now you want us to come back. You can either pay us a reasonable rate or hire some white people to do your yard work, and you know they will charge you three times what I am asking for. If you don’t want to pay, that’s fine. You will probably rot in hell anyway.
In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my daughters, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with my poor sisters. 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.
Translation: If are truly being sincere, please let me know if it will be safe for my kids. Your sons raped my sisters, bringing on them such shame and humiliation that I would rather die than have my daughters suffer the same fate. Also, let me know if there are any good charter schools in the area. We are educated now and won’t take to being held back by the likes of you. And say hey to your friend. Thank him for taking that pistol away from you while you were shooting at me. If it weren’t for him, I might not be leading this fabulous life I have now. We’re doing so well, I am not sure how you could really help us. So yeah, thanks anyway and have a nice life.
I thought this was absolutely hilarious. A guy after my own heart; you know I am fond of writing carefully worded letters that insult people that are too stupid to realize they are being insulted. And it was all so polite.
Of course, there are some nay-sayers that do not believe this is a real letter. For the record, Jourdan Anderson did not read and write (because his master wouldn’t let him learn). He had the letter dictated by an attorney.
I did excerpt this letter in the interest of time, but you can read the whole letter for yourself.
Incidentally, historians have not found Col. Anderson’s response, but I’m sure it went something like this:
You uppity n….!!