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Arts & Culture

Black History Special: The Jordan Anderson Letter

Jordan Anderson
Wiki Commons

Jordan Anderson was a freed slave living in Dayton with his wife and family when the Civil War ended in 1865. He was owned by a man named PH Anderson in Big Spring, Tennessee. One day, Jordan got a letter from his former slave master, asking him to come back to the plantation, with the promise that he would quote "do better" for his former slave than anybody else. Jordan Anderson responded with an eloquent statement of defiance. WYSO producer Basim Blunt talks to Dayton historian Dr. Larry Crowe about the famous Jordan Anderson letter.

Basim Blunt: It's always a pleasure having Larry Crowe on the airways with me at WYSO to celebrate Black History Month. And today we're going to talk about the famous Jordan Anderson letter.

Larry Crowe: I'll start it off. 'To my old master, Colonel Anderson Big Screen Tennessee from Jordan Anderson in Dayton, Ohio, August 7th, 1865. Sir, I got your letter and I was glad to find that you had not forgotten it 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, although you shot at me twice before I left you. I did not want to hear of your being hurt and I'm glad that you are still living. I want to know particularly what the good sense is you propose to give me. I'm doing tolerably well here. I get $25 a month with visuals and clothing. Have a comfortable home for Mandy. The folks call her Mrs. Anderson and the children Millie, Jane and Grundy go to school and are learning well. We are kindly treated. If you were right to say what wages you would give me, I would be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.'

Basim: Wow, I like how he says up here in Dayton, the folks call his wife Mrs. Anderson, and they call the children by their names. On the plantation, they didn't even have that much respect. You know, a boy, a girl?

Larry: Yeah, he goes on there. Let me go to the third paragraph. He says, 'After my freedom, which you say I can have, there's nothing to be gained on that score as I got my free papers in 1864 from the provost marshal of the department in Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us kindly and justly. And we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served. I served you faithfully for 32 years and mandate 20 years, $25 a month for me and $2 a week for Mandy. Our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred eighty dollars. Add this to the interest and the balance will show what we are injustice entitled to. Please send the money via Adams Express in care of the winter's Esquire. Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for our fateful labors of the past, we can have a 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 payday for the Negroes, any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the labor of his hire.

Basim: You know, he calculated his wages for 25 years of slavery, of not being paid. We'll never know. But is that the point of the letter?

Larry: Yeah, it's a sarcastic call for reparations, basically. You know, he's not going to get it. He knows he's not going to get it. Did you know that there's an interesting line in here? He says, 'Please send the money by Adams Express in care of V. Winters Esquire Dayton, Ohio.' V. Winters Esquire was Valentine Winters, the founder of Winter's National Bank. Winter's Bank was the biggest financial institution in Dayton for many years, and they're the builders of what now is called the Kettering Tower in Dayton. The tallest building in the black steel and glass building downtown on Second Street. The 30 story building was built, as well as Bank Tower back in the 70s. Here's the last paragraph this part of the letter I can't read it without tearing up because this is a history that's ugly. 'And in answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Emily and Jane, who are now grown up and both good looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Katherine? 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 open 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, how did the George Carter and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me from your old servant Jordan Anderson.

Basim: Well let's not go past the sentence where he says, you know how it was with poor Matilda and Katherine. I can only think that they were raped. They were sexually abused by the whites who worked for Colonel Anderson.

Larry: That's right. They would have considered themselves entitled to do that.

Basim: And he says, 'I would rather stay here and starve and die than to have my girls, Millie and Jane, the younger daughters, brought to the shame by that violence in wickedness.'

Larry: You know, at the end of the letter he talks about, he was interested in educating the children. One of his sons is actually named Valentine Winters-Anderson. Valentine Winters-Anderson becomes a doctor. He's buried at Woodland Cemetery. And then, you know his grave. Dr. Valentine Winters Anderson. He was a partner with Paul Laurence-Dunbar on Dunbar's paper, The Dayton Tatler that was created by the Wright Brothers.

Basim: That was important for the freed Africans, the freed slaves to have access to education for their children and safety that their daughters would not be raped.

Larry: You know, the idea that you think another human being would not feel what you would feel, you know, and you could do his daughters like that without him feeling, you know, I mean, he felt that he couldn't do anything about it at the time, but he felt it as deeply as anybody would feel it. And you know, that's the point he's making throughout the letter, I guess

Basim: It starts with the delusion that Colonel Anderson thought that somehow slavery on his plantation was good. You know, I don't know. I don't know how you can own someone and not be a prisoner yourself. You know, slavery made the slave out of the owner too.

Larry: You know, the postscript of this is that the plantation in Big Spring, Tennessee went down the tubes because Colonel Anderson drank too much. He didn't know how to run it. I mean, it was Jordan who was running the place.

Basim: Well, as always, brother Larry Crowe, we just want to say thank you for sharing your time and telling us about the Jordan Anderson letter.

Larry: Thank you.