One of the most interesting facets of African-American history is that there’s so much of it. I’m not being facetious—what I mean is that there is a wonderfully and surprisingly large body of documents and first-person accounts by black Americans dating back to the Colonial times. I say surprisingly because many people think that, up until recently, black people didn’t have a voice. Well, they always had a voice—it’s just that the media, and society as whole, didn’t listen. Escaped slaves wrote books and letters. There was also a thriving black press. But up until very recently, mainstream America ignored these sources. When my father started work on The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia (a project starting in the 1970s and spanning over 20 years), he relied heavily on black accounts.
We’re still discovering and unearthing these resources. Here’s one, brought to you by Letters of Note. It’s a letter written by an escaped slave to his former master in the aftermath of the Civil War. The old owner has asked him to return to Tennessee to work at his old plantation. The letter is priceless, and contains one of the greatest closing lines I’ve ever seen.
From Letters of Note:
In August of 1865, a Colonel P.H. Anderson of Big Spring, Tennessee, wrote to his former slave, Jourdan Anderson, and requested that he come back to work on his farm. Jourdan — who, since being emancipated, had moved to Ohio, found paid work, and was now supporting his family — responded spectacularly by way of the letter seen below (a letter which, according to newspapers at the time, he dictated).
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.
You’ll be missing out if you don’t read this letter to the end. Continue reading.