What Would You Tell Your Former “Master” If He Asked You To Return to the Peace and Serenity of His Ohio Plantation?

Emancipation day, or Juneteenth, celebrates the announcement of the “abolition” of enslavement in the state of Texas. I use the term abolition loosely because the Emancipation Proclamation did little to improve the lives of enslaved (or formerly enslaved) Africans and African Americans. Issued in September of 1862, the Proclamation was not legally effective until January 1st 1863 and was not enforced with any urgency until years later. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day after a Union General marched 2,000 federal troops into the state of Texas to enforce abolition by way of rifle and bayonet. This is supposedly when Black people “got free.” What the freedmen didn’t realize was that the slave holding elite had begun to devise a system of institutionalized terrorism known as Jim Crow, which would successfully replace enslavement with more modern tools of administering white supremacy. Fast forward to today, we’ve still got the prison industrial complex, racist gentrification, profiling and drug policies, police brutality and racial discrimination in everything from health care to jobs and schools. We’re really not free yet. Right? But I’m not writing this post to throw salt on Juneteenth. I understand and respect the value to recognizing, and even celebrating Juneteenth as a symbolic gesture commemorating the end of federally sanctioned enslavement in the United States of America. There, I said it. And to prove my righteous intentions, I’m going to share a gem with you that was passed on to me by another scholar in struggle. It’s a letter that a formerly enslaved brother named Jourdon Anderson, wrote to his former captor when he was asked to return to the plantation (the audacity). Check it out:

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

Jourdan Anderson’s tongue-in-cheek, middle finger to the man tone is a bit too subtle for my tastes. I would have preferred to cuss the General out, then take a gallon of kerosene to his Ohio mansion that was built on the backs of my ancestors. I also thought it was odd that he alluded to the rape of his daughters, as criteria for considering a return to the plantation. The “violence and wickedness” that Matilda and Catherine endured must have been unimaginable, and I can’t understand why Jourdan would consider letting former “young masters” within a double barreled shot-gun blast’s length of them, even in jest. That said, it’s a very powerful letter, which gives us some insight into the minds of our ancestors. Definitely worth reading and passing on.

3 Comments to ‘What Would You Tell Your Former “Master” If He Asked You To Return to the Peace and Serenity of His Ohio Plantation?’:

  1. Pierce on 19 Jun 2009 at 10:45 pm: 1

    Today is Juneteenth, by the way. At least for the next 15 minutes..

    Did I mention that?

  2. Olokun Olugbala on 20 Jun 2009 at 9:46 am: 2

    Pierce, excellent post my brother! I thoroughly enjoyed and agree with your perspective. I understand your vehemence, but I rather enjoyed the sarcasm of Jourdan Anderson.

    This is a very timely piece as black folk get ready to engage “their” first 4th of July with a black president at the helm. I don’t know how others will interpret that moment, but I will hold fast to my ritual which is reading Frederick Douglass’ essay, “What is the Fourth of July to a Slave?” A poignant question we have yet to answer…

  3. James on 25 Jun 2009 at 6:40 pm: 3

    All, does someone want to write a letter to Medvedev about this one?

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/8118721.stm

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Published on June 19, 2009 at 10:44 pm. 3 Comments.
Filed under economy,enslavement,history.