For those of us who watched Roots in school, there’s one truth about America and its race relations. Slavery will always serve as the country’s blackest of black eyes. Once the Emancipation Proclamation passed and the Civil War came to an end in the mid-1860’s, African-Americans who were once slaves began new lives free of the plantation, but of course you don’t need me to tell you that. That’s 10th grade American History. This letter I came across a few days ago at Letters Of Note, however, is something not always found in a textbook.
The time was August 1865. The Civil War had officially ended a few months prior and the country was still reeling from the death of President Abraham Lincoln. Colonel P.H. Anderson of Big Spring, Tennessee, penned a letter to his former slave, Jourdan Anderson, with a peculiar request. Colonel Anderson, obviously not used to doing yard work himself, all but begged Jourdan to come back to work, this time for pay and a tad bit more respect. The story takes a unique twist when Jourdan actually wrote back. Well, he recited it to an unnamed individual who wrote it for him.
His tone may take you by surprise.
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.
Oh, that’s not all either. Jourdan goes on to explain his newfound social status and how he is adapting to life as his own man, not the “personal property” of someone else’s. Take five minutes out of your day to check this letter out and spread it to another. While well worth the time while shedding light on the country’s most visible scar, feel free to keep this one notion in mind. This isn’t just Black history. It’s everybody’s.