Niagara Gazette

Features

July 29, 2012

History of acclaimed letter is traced back to former slave

Niagara Gazette — NEW YORK — The ph

otograph, scratched and undated, is captioned “Brother Jordan Anderson.” He is a middle-aged black man with a long beard and a righteous stare, as if he were a preacher locking eyes with a sinner, or a judge about to dispatch a thief to the gallows.

Anderson was a former slave who was freed from a Tennessee plantation by Union troops in 1864 and spent his remaining 40 years in Ohio. He lived quietly and likely would have been forgotten, if not for a remarkable letter to his former master published in a Cincinnati newspaper shortly after the Civil War.

Treasured as a social document, praised as a masterpiece of satire, Anderson’s letter has been anthologized and published all over the world. Historians teach it, and the letter turns up occasionally on a blog or on Facebook. Humorist Andy Borowitz read the letter recently and called it, in an email to The Associated Press, “something Twain would have been proud to have written.”

Addressed to one Col. Patrick Henry Anderson, who apparently wanted Jordan to come back to the plantation east of Nashville, the letter begins cheerfully, with the former slave expressing relief that “you had not forgotten Jordon” and were “promising to do better for me than anybody else can.” But, he adds, “I have often felt uneasy about you.”

Turning serious, he alludes to violence committed against women back in Tennessee and wonders what would happen to his own family members. “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.”

He asks if there are schools now for blacks. “The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits,” he writes.

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