The Ghost Writer: Jourdon Anderson And His Letter From The Freedmen’s Book

By Arturo R. García

As Black History Month gets underway, a particular piece of history has attracted attention after being posted online.

The letter, dated Aug. 7 1865, was originally published in the New York Daily Tribune before being reprinted last month in The Freedmen’s Book, a free collection of letters produced as part of Project Gutenberg for public consumption. The Tribune, of course, was also the newspaper that first published Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents of A Slave Girl in serialized form, including this entry from 1963:

My mother was held as property by a maiden lady; when she marries, my younger sister was in her fourteenth year, whom they took into the family. She was as gentle as she was beautiful. Innocent and guileless child, the light of our desolate hearth! But oh, my heart bleeds to tell you of the misery and degradation she was forced to suffer in slavery. The monster who owned her had no humanity in his soul. The most sincere affection that his heart was capable of, could not make him faithful to his beautiful and wealthy bride the short time of three months, but every stratagem was used to seduce my sister. Mortified and tormented beyond endurance, this child came and threw herself on her mother’s bosom, the only place where she could seek refuge from her persecutor; and yet she could not protect her child that she bore into the world. On that bosom with bitter tears she told her troubles, and entreated her mother to save her.

And oh, Christian mothers! you that have daughters of your own, can you think of your sable sisters without offering a prayer to that God who created all in their behalf! My poor mother, naturally high-spirited, smarting under what she considered as the wrongs and outrages which her child had to bear, sought her master, entreating him to spare her child. Nothing could exceed his rage at this what he called impertinence. My mother was dragged to jail, there remained twenty-five days, with Negro traders to come in as they liked to examine her, as she was offered for sale. My sister was told that she must yield, or never expect to see her mother again.

Anderson’s letter to his former master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, resurfaced again Monday when it was posted on Letters of Note, an archival site that had already garnered attention from the likes of GQ Magazine in the past. And in the past 48 hours, the letter’s been mentioned on Yahoo, BoingBoing–which reported that both the Colonel and Jourdan’s existences had been confirmed–and other outlets.

Courtesy of The Freedmen’s Book, Jourdon Anderson’s letter is under the cut, in its entirety.

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.

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  • Kat

    Thank you so much for this! It’s great that this is (apparently, see other comments) in some history books. Makes me even more angry about Arizona though.

  • S. Mandisa

    I dont know why its hard for people to imagine that his children likely wrote the letter for him. He said that his children were getting an education. I know that my grandparents had my parents write for them and I know there are hundreds of families like mine whose children/grandchildren had access to educational opportunities they did not.

    Im thankful this hasn’t happened on this site, but on a few others people are questioning the authenticity of the letter of Mr Anderson. Of course, no one questions the validity of Harriet Jacobs’ letter-instead they just act like its not there and sexual violence on the bodies of enslaved women didnt happen…..ever.

    So powerful, so happy these are out there.

  • SLK

    although the letter may have been written by a ghost writer, Jordan Anderson was a real person, along with his wife Amanda,  as were his children, Jane, Catherine, Matilda, Felix (who died in WWI), William, Andrew, Valentine (who was  a Physician) Charlotte, and Eva.  

  • Anonymous

    Believe it or not, this letter was in my US History text book from AP History class in the not so distant past. I appreciated it then as I do now. It is the ultimate “fuck you” without saying “fuck you”.

  • GabrielaL

    Wow.  After reading this I felt a real sense of pride from Jourdan Anderson.   Good for him.  Also, this (letter) shows us how to forgive and forget.

    • RVCBard

      Yes. Forgive and forget, in a most ironic fashion.

      Black folks: Through with hipster irony 150 years before hipsters knew what to do with it.

    • RVCBard

      Yes. Forgive and forget, in a most ironic fashion.

      Black folks: Through with hipster irony 150 years before hipsters knew what to do with it.

  • Mieko Gavia

    That is the most badass letter i have ever read.  Way to go, Mr. Anderson!!!