To My Old Master

How Jordan Anderson’s 157-year-old letter became a biting commentary on slavery and reparations.

Editor’s Note: This story is one in a series of Black History Month stories that explores the role of resistance to oppression in the Black community.

By many accounts, Jordan Anderson is a name that should have been lost in history.

Born into slavery in Tennessee, at the age of around 8 in 1832, he was sold to a plantation owned by Gen. Paulding Anderson in Big Spring, Tennessee. It is likely that Jordan was given to one of the general’s sons, Patrick Henry Anderson, as a playmate and personal servant.

By 1863, as Union soldiers were closing in, Jordan and his wife and children escaped first to Nashville, then Dayton, Ohio, where he lived a quiet life as a free man.

So how did Jordan become an enduring symbol of Black resistance to the point that scholars have lauded his wit and use of satire, irony and humor in his call for respect and reparations?

He answered a letter.

In July of 1865, Jordan received a letter from his old playmate, now Col. Anderson, begging him to return home to help him tend his plantation. Col. Anderson was “broke by the war” and with his plantation teetering, was in desperate need of help.

Jordan dutifully writes back.

“I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, (his name was misspelled in the initial publishing of his letter) and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again,” Jordan writes.

The politeness remains, but it is masked in what becomes a scathing letter, carefully detailing the reasons he would never set foot on that plantation again.

“I have often felt uneasy about you,” Jordan wrote.

The eloquence of his letter is such that its authenticity has been questioned, through its legitimacy has been confirmed by scholars.

“One of the great features of the letter is it is in this voice where it almost sounds like they are on good terms, then he knifes the guy,” said Michael Johnson, a retired history professor at Johns Hopkins University. “It is masterful in that it reflects a kind of anger and hostility with a personal relationship. This is a resistance to the terms of slavery as it was imposed on him. Done in a voice that is judgmental and personal.”

In his letter, Jordan asks for back wages for the years he slaved on the plantation and expresses his fear for the safety of his daughters if they returned, reminding the colonel of the plights of “poor Matilda and Catherine,” two enslaved women who were sexually assaulted on the plantation.

He also told the colonel how his wife is now referred commonly to as “Mrs. Anderson,” a signal of how the family has gained a level of respect in Ohio that they never experienced in Tennessee.

“This is one of best documents we have from the ex-slave community and I see it a couple of ways,” said Roy E. Finkenbine, interim director of African American Studies Department at the University of Detroit-Mercy. “It was kind of Jordan’s slave narrative, recounting his story of how he is succeeding at freedom. The other part is one of the best documents we have on a reparations claim.”

In this Wednesday, June 27, 2012 photo, Roy Finkenbine, University of Detroit Mercy History Professor and Interim Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Education, holds a print showing Jordan Anderson, in his office in Detroit. Finkenbine is planning a biography of the former slave who is credited with writing a remarkable letter to his ex-master. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

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In the letter, Jordan writes that Anderson owes him more than $11,000 and instructs him where to send it. The letter is so pointed and specific that some have questioned its authenticity and wondered if it was an invention of abolitionists to strengthen their arguments about the evils of slavery of the hypocrisy of an owner begging for the return of one of his former slave.

Especially since Jordan could neither read nor write.

Finkenbine, who is also the University of Detroit-Mercy’s director of the Black Abolitionist Archive, said the letter is legit and backed up by extensive studies that he and other scholars like Johnson have done on census and slavery rolls which verify the names, places and times that Jordan wrote about.

“We tend to look at enslaved people who were kept illiterate and look at illiteracy as an indication of lesser thinking,” Finkerbine said. “But even though this was a dictated letter, there is some pretty deep thought going on there. These are (Jordan’s) words and (Jordan) was a pretty smart guy.”

Johnson and Finkerbine said that it is likely that Jordan dictated the letter to Valentine Winters, a prominent and rich Ohio banker, who was also a staunch abolitionist.

“Winters was in favor of the grievances that Jordan Anderson had,” Johnson said. “But the testimony, experiences, and voice were all Jordan Anderson’s.”

The letter was published in the Cincinnati Commercial and quickly reprinted in the New York Daily Tribune and Lydia Maria Child’s “The Freedmen’s Book.”

In this Monday, July 9, 2012 photo, the family grave stone of slave owner Col. Patrick Henry Anderson stands in Cedar Grove Cemetery in Lebanon, Tenn. A letter sent to Anderson and credited to his former slave, Jordan Anderson, has been praised as a masterpiece of satire, pretending to consider the master's invitation to return to the plantation, requesting unpaid wages, and sending respects to another man "for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me." (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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In a word, it went viral. Subsequently, it has been published hundreds of times and occasionally trends on social media.

“It shows that whatever he did while he was in Tennesee, he harbored in his soul a spirit of resistance that you can see open up in this letter,” Johnson said.

According to records, just a month after Jordan’s letter, the colonel sold his 1,000-acre Tennessee estate for a pittance in an attempt to get out from under his crushing debt. Just two years later, he would die at the age of 44.

Jordan died on April 15, 1905, at the age of 80.

It is unclear if the colonel ever wrote him back.

"To My Old Master" illustration by Richard L. Watkins for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ric Watkins

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Credit: Ric Watkins

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 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. 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.

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 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’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. 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 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.

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

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson


Go to to see a video of Atlanta actor Afemo Omilami reading Jordan Anderson’s letter.