Black History Month, day 5

A letter from a man named Jourdon Anderson, emancipated from slavery, to his former master, in 1865, has gone viral over the past few days. If you haven’t seen it yet, enjoy it, and if you have, enjoy it again:

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 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. 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.

Naturally, the question immediately arose whether this letter was genuine, as well it should considering the frauds that circulate the ‘net. As established by links from the wonderful website Letters of Note, there was definitely a person named Jourdon Anderson in the stated time and place, and the letter was printed in the newspaper at the time, with a preface explaining that it Mr. Anderson dictated it, as illiterate people do when they want to correspond with someone far away. (In Mexico City there is a plaza known for its many typists set up at small tables, to whom people bring their letters to be read, and to whom they dictate the responses, for a fee. Its use has declined in recent years, though I don’t know whether that’s because more people can read and write, the service has shifted to internet cafes, or almost everyone has access to a phone.) That doesn’t resolve the question of whether the letter was actually composed, or the language made more sophisticated, by the person who wrote it down, as some commenters have pointed out.

And so we move effortlessly from racism to classism: the assumption that someone illiterate and uneducated could not use language that is so clever and ironic. What percentage of the world’s population over history has never learned to read and write, both within literate societies and within oral ones? Is it so unimaginable that many of them have used the spoken word with style and subtlety, despite (or even because of) not using written language? I find it unimaginable that they would not, not just because of obvious examples such as (the disputed) Homer, but because developing the necessary into an art is what people do. Look at the gorgeous baskets and pottery people made thousands of years ago, not content to create something functional but making them works of the highest skill and art. Mr. Anderson was an artist with language, and I’m glad his letter has survived for us to read.