Painful, Cutting, and Brilliant: The Meaning of Freedom in Letters to Former Enslavers

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, Reconstruction, African American history, emancipation

Some are exquisite condemnations from learned and accomplished men who escaped their enslavement. Some are brief queries, shots in the dark, dictated by illiterate women. One is brilliant sarcasm, humorously calculating and requesting back wages.

All of these letters from Black Americans to the people who once controlled their lives show a desire for freedom and a desperate longing to be reunited with their families.

Three of these five letters were written by formerly enslaved people directly to their onetime enslavers. One was addressed to President Abraham Lincoln, who had the power to emancipate its author and had so far withheld it. One was written by a still-enslaved woman desperately searching for her daughter.

Spelling has been standardized and paragraph breaks added for readability.

“Send us our wages”: Jourdon Anderson, 1865

Jourdon Anderson and his family were freed by Union troops during the Civil War and left Tennessee for Ohio. A few months after the war ended, Anderson’s former enslaver wrote to him, asking him to return to the plantation, where the harvest was about to come in, and promising a wage and freedom. Anderson dictated his reply to his abolitionist employer, who was so impressed with its wit he had it published in the newspaper.

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 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 $25 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. 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 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.

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