To My Old Master

Harper’s Magazine, No­vem­ber 2000, p. 41.

[The fol­low­ing letter was pub­lished in The Freedmen’s Book, a col­lec­tion of African-American writ­ings com­piled by the abo­li­tion­ist Lydia Maria Child in 1865. The letter is a re­sponse to a slave owner who has written to his former slave at the war’s end, asking him to return to work in Tennessee.]

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. … 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.

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 were 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 friend-ship in the future. I served you faith­fully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earning would amount to eleven thou­sand six hundred and eighty dollars. Ad to this the in­ter­est for the time our wages have 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 Adam’s 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. … 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 came 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.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shoot­ing me.

From your old servant,
Jourdon An­der­son