Friday, February 03, 2012

Letter from a Freedman to His Old Master

I can't believe I have never read the Letter from a Freedman to His Old Master before. Dictated to someone by the presumably illiterate Jourdan Anderson, it appears to be genuine and was published in a couple of contemporary newspapers - just months after the end of the Civil War and as such is an extremely important primary-source historical document.

I was especially interested, although naturally horrified, to read the last section, which touches on the issue of slave rape, an important component of my developing play CELIA:
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 come 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.

Years later when Mark Twain wrote about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, he completely glossed over this aspect of slavery - although I guess he'll be forgiven because those books, even Huck Finn, are considered children's books.

The best part of the letter is when Anderson, in response to his old master asking him to come back and work for him, asks for back pay :
"...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 twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add 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 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. "
And the last sentence is good too:
Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

Anderson was an absolute master of the passive-aggressive form.