Author of the 1865 Letter from a Freedman to His Old Master
|Died||April 15, 1907
Jordan Anderson or Jourdon Anderson (December 1825 – April 15, 1907) was a Black-American former slave noted for a letter he dictated, known as "Letter from a Freedman to His Old Master". It was addressed to his former master, Colonel P. H. Anderson, in response to the Colonel's request that Jordan return to the plantation to help restore the farm after the disarray of the war. It has been described as a rare example of documented "slave humor" of the period and its deadpan style has been compared to the satire of Mark Twain.
Anderson was born around 1825 somewhere in Tennessee. By age 7 or 8, he was sold as a slave to General Paulding Anderson of Big Spring in Wilson County, Tennessee, and subsequently passed to the general's son Patrick Henry Anderson, probably as a personal servant and playmate as the two were of similar age. In 1848, Jordan Anderson married Amanda (Mandy) McGregor. The two eventually would have eleven children together. In 1864, Union Army soldiers camped on the Anderson plantation and freed Jordan Anderson. He then may have worked ath the Cumberland Military Hospital in Nashville before eventually settling in Dayton, Ohio, moving with the help of the surgeon in charge of the hospital, Dr. Clarke McDermont. There he found work as a servant, janitor, coachman, or hostler, until 1894, when he became a sexton, probably at the Wesleyan Methodist Church; a position he held until his death. His employer, Valentine Winters, was father-in-law to McDermont. He died in Dayton on April 15, 1907 of "exhaustion" at 81 years old, and is buried in Woodland Cemetery, one of the oldest "garden" cemeteries in the United States. Amanda died April 12, 1913; she is buried next to him.
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In July 1865, a few months after the end of the Civil War, Colonel P. H. Anderson wrote a letter to his former and now freed slave Jordan Anderson asking him to come back and work on the Tennessee plantation which had been left in disarray from the war. Harvest season was approaching with nobody to bring in the crops; the colonel was making a last-ditch effort to save the farm. On August 7, from his home in Ohio, Jordan Anderson dictated a letter in response through his abolitionist employer, Valentine Winters, who had it published in the Cincinnati Commercial. The letter became an immediate media sensation with reprints in the New York Daily Tribune of August 22, 1865 and Lydia Maria Child's The Freedmen's Book the same year.
In the letter, Jordan Anderson describes his better life in Ohio, and asks his former master to prove his goodwill by paying the back wages he and his wife are owed for many years of slave labor, a total of 52 years combined. He asks if his daughters will be safe and able to have an education, since they are "good-looking girls" and Jordan would rather die "than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters... how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine." The letter concludes, "Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me."
The people mentioned in the letter are real and include George Carter, who was a carpenter in Wilson County, Tennessee. "Miss Mary" and "Miss Martha" are Colonel Anderson's wife, Mary, and their daughter, Martha. The man named "Henry", who had plans to shoot Jordan if he ever got the chance, "was more than likely Colonel Patrick Henry Anderson's son, Patrick Henry Jr., whom everyone called Henry, and who would have been about 18 when Jordan left in 1864." The two daughters, "poor Matilda and Catherine" did not travel with Jordan to Ohio and their fate is unknown, it is speculated that whatever befell them was fatal, or they were sold as slaves to other families before Jordan had been freed. V. Winters in the letter was the aforementioned Valentine Winters, a banker in Dayton, and founder of Winters Bank, whom Jordan and his wife felt a respect for since in 1870 they named a son Valentine Winters Anderson.
Colonel Anderson, having failed to attract his former slaves back, sold the land for a pittance to try to get out of debt. Two years later he was dead at the age of 44. Prior to 2006, historian Raymond Winbush tracked down the living relatives of the Colonel in Big Spring, reporting that they "are still angry at Jordan for not coming back," knowing that the plantation was in serious disrepair after the war.
Dr. Valentine Winters Anderson, Jordan Anderson's son, was a close friend and collaborator with Paul Laurence Dunbar, an important African-American author. A character called "Jeremiah Anderson," who is asked by his former master to return to the plantation and who refuses, appears in Dunbar's short story, "The Wisdom of Silence."
Michael Johnson, a historian at Johns Hopkins University, investigated the people and places mentioned in order to verify the document's authenticity. He found that 1860 slave records named a Colonel P. H. Anderson in the right county, and that some of his slaves, although not referred to by name, matched the sexes and ages of those in the letter. Jordan Anderson, his wife, and children also appear in the 1870 census of Dayton; they are listed as black and born in Tennessee.
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