Black History Special: The Letter from Jordan Anderson

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 received a letter from his former slave master, asking him to return to the plantation, with the promise that he would quote “do better” for his former slave than anyone else. Jordan Anderson responded eloquently declaration of challenge. WYSO producer Basim Blunt talks to Dayton historian Dr. Larry Crowe about the famous Letter from Jordan Anderson.

Basim Blunt: Always a pleasure to have Larry Crowe on the airways with me at WYSO in celebration of Black History Month. And today we are going to talk about the famous letter from Jordan Anderson.

Larry Crowe: I’m going to start. ‘To my former master, Colonel Anderson Big Screen Tennessee of Jordan Anderson at Dayton, Ohio, August 7, 1865. Sir, I received your letter and was pleased 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 anyone else. I often felt bad about you, even though you shot me twice before I left you. I didn’t want to hear from you and I’m glad you’re still alive. Above all, I want to know what good sense you propose to give me. I’m doing quite well here. I get $25 a month with visuals and clothing. Have a comfortable home for Mandy. People call her Mrs. Anderson and the children Millie, Jane and Grundy go to school and learn well. We are treated well. If you were right in saying what salary you would give me, I would be in a better position to decide if it would be beneficial for me to leave again.

Basic: Wow, I like the way he says here in Dayton, people call his wife Mrs. Anderson, and they call the kids by their names. On the plantation, they didn’t even have much respect. You know, a boy, a girl?

Larry: Yes, there it goes. Let’s go to the third paragraph. He says, “After my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to gain on this side because I got my free papers in 1864 from the provost of the department in Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid of leaving without some proof that you were disposed to treat us with kindness and justice. And we concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our salary for the time we served. I have served you faithfully for 32 years and have mandated 20 years, $25 per month for me and $2 per week for Mandy. Our winnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add that to the interest and the balance will show what we are entitled to due to the injustice. Please send the money via Adams Express in care of Winter’s Squire. Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for our fateful works in the past, we can have a little faith in your promises in the future. We hope the good Creator has opened your eyes to the wrongs you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers by making us work for you for generations without reward. Here, I receive my salary every Saturday evening. But in Tennessee, there never was pay for niggers, no more than for horses and cows. There will surely be a day of judgment for those who swindle the work of his salary.

Basic: You know, he calculated his salary for 25 years of slavery, without being paid. We’ll never know. But is that the purpose of the letter?

Larry: Yeah, that’s a sarcastic call for repairs, basically. You know, he won’t. He knows he won’t get it. Did you know there is an interesting line 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 Dayton’s largest financial institution for many years, and they are the builders of what is now called the Kettering Tower in Dayton. Downtown’s tallest black steel and glass building on Second Street. The 30-storey building was built, along with the Bank Tower, in the 70s. Here is the last paragraph this part of the letter I can’t read it without tearing it up because it’s an ugly story. “And in replying to this letter, please advise if there would be any security for my Emily and Jane, who are now adults and both beautiful daughters. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Katherine? I would rather stay here, starve and die if that were to happen, than see my daughters covered in shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. Please also indicate if there have been schools opened for children of color in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to educate my children and make them develop virtuous habits. Say, how did George Carter do it and thank him for taking the gun from you when you were shooting me at your old servant Jordan Anderson.

Basic: Well, let’s not go beyond the sentence where he says, you know how it was with poor Matilda and Katherine. I can only think they were violated. They were sexually abused by white people who worked for Colonel Anderson.

Larry: That’s right. They would have thought they had the right to do so.

Basic: And he said, “I’d rather stay here and starve and die than have my daughters, Millie and Jane, the youngest daughters, brought to shame by this violence in wickedness.”

Larry: You know, at the end of the letter he talks about, he was interested in raising children. One of his sons is actually named Valentine Winters-Anderson. Valentine Winters-Anderson becomes a doctor. He is buried in 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 Tatler of Dayton which was created by the Wright brothers.

Basic: It was important for freed Africans, freed slaves to have access to education for their children and the security that their daughters would not be raped.

Larry: You know, the idea that you think another human being wouldn’t feel what you would feel, you know, and you could do that to his girls without him feeling, you know, I mean he felt that he couldn’t do anything about at the time, but he felt it as deeply as anyone would. And you know, that’s the point he makes throughout the letter, I guess

Basic: This begins with the delusion that Colonel Anderson somehow thought slavery on his plantation was good. You know, I don’t know. I don’t know how you can possess someone and not be a prisoner yourself. You know, slavery also made the owner the slave.

Larry: You know, the postscript of this is that the plantation in Big Spring, Tennessee, collapsed because Colonel Anderson drank too much. He didn’t know how to make it work. I mean, it was Jordan who ran the place.

Basic: Well, as always, Brother Larry Crowe, we just want to thank you for sharing your time and telling us about Jordan Anderson’s letter.

Larry: Thank you.