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.
Then he signs off with a swift, unforgettable kick.
“Say howdy to George Carter,” he says, “and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.”
Anderson’s words, a timeless kiss-off to a hated boss, are also a puzzle: How could an illiterate man, newly released from bondage, produce such a work of sophisticated satire?
After the letter resurfaced online earlier this year, along with questions about its authenticity, The Associated Press sought answers.
From documents compiled by the AP and in interviews with scholars, Anderson emerges as a very real person and the very real author of his story — though, from the beginning, it was reported to have been “dictated.” His letter is an outstanding, but not unique, testament to the ability of slaves to turn horror into humor.
According to available records, Jordan Anderson was born somewhere in Tennessee around 1825 and by age 7 or 8 had been sold to a plantation owned by Gen. Paulding Anderson in Big Spring, Tenn. Patrick Henry Anderson was one of the general’s sons and, by the mid-1840s owned Jordan and other slaves. Jordan Anderson married Amanda McGregor in 1848 and they apparently had 11 children.
Union troops camped on the plantation, and Jordan was freed in 1864 by the Provost-Marshall-General of the Department of Nashville.
Jordan Anderson’s collaborator — to whom he reportedly dictated the letter — was a Dayton banker named Valentine Winters. An abolitionist who once hosted Abraham Lincoln at his mansion, Winters regarded the letter as excellent propaganda, according to Finkenbine. It was originally published in August 1865 by the Cincinnati Commercial, a paper with Republican leanings.
In a 2006 speech at a conference on slavery reparations, historian Raymond Winbush retold the story of Anderson’s letter. He also revealed that he had tracked down some of Patrick Henry Anderson’s descendants, still living in Big Spring.
“What’s amazing is that the current living relatives of Col. Anderson are still angry at Jordan for not coming back,” knowing that the plantation was in serious disrepair after the war,” said Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Maryland’s Morgan State University. Anderson eventually sold the plantation for a pittance to get out of crushing debt and died at the age of 44.
Jordan’s son, Dr. Valentine Winters Anderson, was a close friend of African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The two collaborated on the Dayton Tattler, the city’s first black newspaper.
Among Dunbar’s works is a 1904 story titled “The Wisdom of Silence.” In it, a freed slave named Jeremiah Anderson rebuffs his former master’s attempts to woo him back to the plantation.
“No, suh, I’s free, an’ I sholy is able to tek keer o’ myse’f,” the freedman in Dunbar’s story declares. “I done been fattenin’ frogs fu’ othah people’s snakes too long.”