A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Letter from a Freedman to His Old Master

I heard this letter mentioned in a sermon at church and I Googled it right away. It is such a good fit for dealing with the mindset of abusers that I just had to read up on it. The letter was dictated to an activist/friend of the author and it was widely published at the time. Jordan Anderson and Colonel Anderson were real people. Historians can’t be sure that Jordan actually wrote this letter, but it got a great deal of attention at the time and in recent years as well.

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 Jourdan, 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, “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 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 poor 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, Jourdan Anderson

An AP article about Anderson [Internet Archive link] relates

In a 2006 speech at a conference on slavery reparations, historian Raymond Winbush retold the story of Anderson’s letter. He also revealed that he had tracked down some of Patrick Henry Anderson’s descendants, still living in Big Spring.

‘What’s amazing is that the current living relatives of Colonel Anderson are still angry at Jordan for not coming back,’ knowing that the plantation was in serious disrepair after the war, said Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Maryland’s Morgan State University.

I (Ellie) just don’t even know where to begin here. The parallels keep popping up in every line. I’ll post a couple and then you can comment with the ones you notice. How’s that?

One that I’ve been ruminating on is this:

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 Col. Anderson. Many darkies would have been proud, as I used to was, to call you master.

I was so very proud of him. He is smart and accomplished. He is funny and hard working. He sings like an angel. I was proud of his work, proud of his ability to motivate others, proud of the way he loved to bless people. “Pay no attention to the way he glares at me. Don’t mention that I look exhausted,” I’d think. “I get to be with the greatness that is X and that is more than I can say for you,” I’d think. Not just anyone gets to be abused by someone as great as X. Oh boy. The farther I get from it, the weirder it all looks. But I thought it was normal then. Freedom is better. And I wouldn’t go back for a mere $11K I can tell you that right now.

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.

Isn’t it just like an abuser to try to define reality and tell folks what they can and can’t have as if it is up to them? I am done with that. No thanks

And then I’ll comment on the abuser’s family. I’ve had some wonderful support. But there are those who blame me, who think I’ve ruined Christmas and other holidays, who think my refusal to live with an abuser set into motion a terrible sequence of events. HELLO! Those events never would’ve happened if he hadn’t abused me! I don’t hope anymore that they’ll see that. They won’t. It’s been over 100 years and Colonel Anderson’s descendants still blame Jordan for the plantation’s plight. Some things are best left to be sorted out on Judgement Day. I’ll never be able to explain this to them. So I’ll trust that God’s defense of me is enough.

16 Comments

  1. Barnabasintraining

    I’ve seen this letter before. I love this letter! 😀

    Regarding the tone of the church, etc. to abuse victims, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt like an abolitionist in the deep South circa early 1800’s. 😦

  2. If you fail to pay us [make reparation] for our faithful labors in the past we can have little faith in your promises in the future.

    That could be a motto for every victim of abuse.

    I have a comfortable home for Mandy (the folks here call her Mrs. Anderson),

    . . . so what did the Colonel/slave owner call her? Lots of disrespectful and belittling names, I’m sure.

    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.

    Just like the Family Court never heard that you killed our dog, terrorised the children, and locked me out of the house that night of the snowstorm last winter.

    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.

    … see, Pastor Blindman and Counselor Nouthetica, am not bitter and vindictive, even though you are determined to label me that way.

  3. His Child

    What a great find, Ellie!

    “I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this for harboring Rebs they found at your house.” Oh yes, the victim scratches his head as to how the perpetrator constantly gets away with it. Why can’t the others see it? Are they blind? Why do they not hold him accountable? Maybe this is why they keep doing it – they know they can get away with it. I think I once read somewhere that by the time the perpetrator gets caught, he has already been very successful in squirming his way out of trouble.

    • Something I read about socially skilled pedophiles: by the time they get caught and convicted on one or two counts, they have typically molested scores if not hundreds of children.

  4. Brenda R

    I’ve read this letter better. It touches me more this time around. The similarities of what I would write or say to my soon to be ex-husband or any of the people who think I should just go back are startling. Back wages–how do you put a price on taking away your life, self respect and dignity for 20 years. I am 56 years old and starting from scratch. No local support system, family or friends, but Jourdon has given me hope. He now has a home where his wife is called Mrs. Anderson. In time, Lord willing, I will build a life with respect and those who will stand with my decision to live a life of abuse.

    • Anon

      Go, Brenda! We’re with you. Out of the ashes of slavery rises a group of humans who are determined to live life responsibly, with respect for God, others and self.

      • Brenda R

        Anon, I reread what I had written. I’m glad you knew what I meant. It should have said I’ve read this letter before and at the end, stand with my decision to live a life without abuse. I really need to proof read.

  5. AJ

    What is most striking to me in this letter is his sense of self worth. I wonder if it is because wives are not only required to serve and obey an abuser but also to love them (reminds me of Pastor Jeff’s sermon on stockholm syndrome) that so many of us come out the other side with destroyed self worth, with no sense of personal inherent value. We don’t require the abuser to make things right because we are taught that it is our job just to love them and submit to them. Seems like there is something soul destroying in that piece, you are not valuable enough to require your spouse to treat you well?

    • That’s very astute, AJ. I had noticed Jourdan’s amazingly secure sense of self-worth, but had not been able to put it into words or articulate how different it is for victims of abuse.

      Perhaps another reason for the former slave’s strong sense of his own self-worth is that he is now living in a society which, in marked contrast to the society he left in the South, treats him as valuable and worthy of respect and honor as an individual. And that society sees and believes that his former condition was indeed slavery, was highly unjust, that he was heinously mistreated by wicked controlling people.
      Contrast this with how most survivors are treated by society: we are still not considered valuable and worthy of respect let alone honor. We are seen to be at fault for staying and at fault for leaving (leaving too late, leaving too soon, or leaving at all…). We are seen as whining bitter vindictive people who are draining the welfare purse. As emotional basket cases who keep bringing up our past wounds even if they happened years ago. As hoydens and harridans who are being un-Christian for waving the banners of protest and sullying the pretty name of the church. I could go on, but you get the picture.

      • Barnabasintraining

        And don’t forget that the slave owners often used Scripture to justify their enslavement of their fellow men. There was a very strong religious component to the Civil War, as well as civil and economic.

      • Brenda R

        Funny, or maybe not funny, that you should say that. My ex has been told to cease communication or a PPO will be requested tomorrow. He almost had me convinced that it wasn’t necessary. He slowed down on calls and emails, but today the emails got warped again so I told him that unless it was regarding unfinished financial issues do not contact me. Since then I have had 10 emails and 15 phone calls. He tells me that I don’t serve his god because I am being heartless and nasty. He demands that I tell him that I don’t love him so he can stop calling me and now he is starting the God says that I must love everyone so I have to love him. This morning he sent an email with Proverbs 31:11-12 saying it says that he will trust me if I love him. I didn’t get that one. Now he is threatening to come to my apartment so I can tell him to his face that I do or don’t love him. I did respond to that saying not to come here and which part of restraining order does he not understand. Of course, I am making him do that. If I would only do as I am told and answer him, he wouldn’t have to do it. I am a little frightened right now. Make that a lot.

      • Brenda, I’m not sure from what you’ve written whether you already have a restraining order in place, and if so what behaviors it forbids your husband to use. But if you do have one in place and he’s violating it by phoning and emailing you, I recommend you contact the police and report every breach he is making. Don’t delay on this, don’t tell yourself “Oh, it’s only a minor breach”. Even if the police tell you that “it’s only a minor breach,” keep reporting the breaches, keep documenting them, be the persistent widow who keeps knocking on the judge’s door. Document each breach and each time you report a breach to the police, and document each time the police don’t act on your reports. Create a paper trail that can be evidence in the future, should you need it.
        Once I wrote a letter of complaint to the Officer in charge at the large police station in my town, about the way one of the more junior officers had treated me.

        Sometimes we need to be polite persistent pests, to get authorities to implement the policies they are supposed to be following.

  6. Song of Joy

    Jourdan’s dignity and sarcastic wit are great! His request for backpay wages for himself and his wife is a lot more bold than it seems…depending on which inflation calculator is used for $11,860 in 1864 US dollars …it can vary…nevertheless, he’s demanding approximately several hundred thousand dollars in today’s currency. 🙂

  7. Ellie

    Still not enough!

    Even if he could/would pay, he still couldn’t value me for ME. He couldn’t respect or love me. That’s all I wanted. But he can’t or won’t and so he was cruel and the marriage, like the plantation, failed.

  8. Anonymous

    Thank you again for leaving up these old posts.

    I read this a few days ago and keep thinking about. The part about getting in touch with the current living relatives of the slave owner–and to this day they blame the slave! If I didn’t know about the nature of abusers I would be mortified as well mystified as to how this could be, but alas….it doesn’t surprise me at all anymore.

    Ellie wrote: “Isn’t it just like an abuser to try to define reality and tell folks what they can and can’t have as if it is up to them?” Yes….and it is just one of many of their defining characteristics.

  9. Finding Answers

    From the letter cited “……. the great desire of my life now is to give my children an education……”

    Learning.

    Children are sponges – absorbing information from the seen and unseen.

    Think of Jordan Anderson, what he was teaching his children.

    Think of Colonel Anderson, what he was teaching his children.

    Now, reading the information regarding the anger of Colonel Anderson’s current living relatives, the roles of freedman and master appear reversed.

    Education does not always come from books.

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