Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, January 18, 2010

MLK Day 2010: Letter From a Freedman

This year for Martin Luther King Day, I wanted to feature a letter written in 1865 by a former slave to his former master. I've linked it before elsewhere in honor of Juneteenth, but it's pretty extraordinary. This comes via Facing South (in turn via Ta-Nehisi Coates). Facing South describes it as a:

...letter by freedman Jourdon Anderson of Dayton, Ohio. He was writing in response to an invitation from Colonel P.H. Anderson of Big Springs, Tenn., his former enslaver, to return to as a laborer to the plantation where he was once held captive...

[The] document... is part of the online Digital History Archives at the University of Houston. The letter, dated Aug. 7, 1865, was published in the Cincinnati Commercial and later reprinted in the New York Tribune.

Here's the full text:

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter and was glad to find 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 Col. 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 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 $25 a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy (the folks here 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, "The 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 Col. Anderson. Many darkies would have been proud, as I used to was, 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 are sincerely 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 $25 a month for me, and $2 a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,680. Add to this the interest for the time our wages has 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 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 Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve and die if it comes 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. <>P.S. -- 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

Many of the lines - "As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score," "what we are in justice entitled to," and "We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers," - are wry, thoughtful and moving. The post scriptum is in a class by itself, though.

MLK Day to me has always meant stopping to consider the dignity of all human beings, and to honor those who have fought for rights for all. It was a special day for history and reflection at the school where I taught. I continued to be dismayed by public figures casually endorsing torture. It's monstrous. However, there are so many smaller indignities in our culture and around the world, too. Fighting for basic civil or human rights isn't always in fashion, but it's one of the best fights there is.

Tavis Smiley has a special on Martin Luther King's speech against the Vietnam War that will be airing on March 31, 2010 on some PBS stations. In the meantime:


aimai said...

This is right up there with Satan's letter to Pat Robertson.


Porlock Junior said...

Or higher. I am not qualified to make comparisons, not having the proper education in the Classics that might enable a person to read all the materials about Socrates in the original ;-) but I am reminded of this sort of thing:

"In speaking of these charges, gentlemen of the jury, my concern is wholly with Clodia, a lady who possesses not only nobility of birth but also a certain notoriety. However, I shall say nothing about her except in connection with the charges against my client. ...for I have never felt it right to argue with a woman, especially with one who has always been regarded not as any man's enemy but as every man's friend..." [from the Pro Caelio of Cicero] Ooo, naughty!

Cicero takes the low road rather more than our courteous Southern freedman, which perhaps makes the latter's achievement all the more impressive.