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In 1856 a Freed Slave Wrote a Letter to His Former Master: 'You Owe Us $11,680 for 52 Years of Unpaid Labor'

By Petr Knava | Miscellaneous | March 12, 2018 |

By Petr Knava | Miscellaneous | March 12, 2018 |


In 1864, as the American Civil War neared its final stages, a contingent of Union soldiers set up camp on the plantation of General Paulding Anderson—by then held by his son, Patrick Henry Anderson. The plantation, in Big Spring, Wilson County, Tennessee, had been an involuntary home to many African-Americans, among them one Jourdon Anderson, who had been sold into bondage in the early 1830’s when he was seven or eight years old. Being of similar age to Patrick Henry Anderson it is likely that he was purchased and brought to the Big Spring plantation to be a personal servant and playmate to the young master. Jourdon would work and live there in Big Spring until, approaching his forties and by then married to Amanda (Mandy) McGregor, he was released from his servitude by the blue-clad men sweeping across the country. Not wasting any time, Jourdon Anderson and his wife immediately moved to Ohio, where Jourdon found paid work. He and Mandy would eventually have eleven children together, but just a year after their escape from the plantation that had been Jodan’s prison for most of his life, they received a different sort of package. A letter, from Colonel P. H. Anderson, Jourdon’s former owner. It turned out that after the war ended, with the slaves freed, harvest season approaching, and no one left to work the farm, Anderson had found himself in dire straits. His business was on the verge of failing. Desperate, he wrote to his former property, pleading with Jourdon to come back and to help him work the farm, offering him ‘a good chance’.

Jourdon’s response, dictated from his home, is something to behold:

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.

Jourdon never returned to Big Spring. He died in 1907, aged 81. His wife passed away six years later.

(Header image from Wikimedia Commons)


Petr Knava lives in London and plays music

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Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.