letter from a freedman to his old master
October 26, 2000 2:18 PM   Subscribe

letter from a freedman to his old master jourdan anderson's letter offers a compelling view of one man's view of freedom. page 2, page 3

posted by riley370 (16 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Wow....powerful stuff. Makes me wish I had known the man who wrote this.
posted by Optamystic at 2:41 PM on October 26, 2000


I don't know what else to add, except maybe a question: do we know if anything else like this exists? The letter was evidently published, do we know what book it was in?

Thanks, Riley, for the link. Bravo.

posted by silusGROK at 2:54 PM on October 26, 2000

Also, very subtly raises the question of reparations. Seems to me that some sort of compensation is due the ancestors of those who suffered the unspeakable evils that were commonplace during this era.
posted by Optamystic at 3:04 PM on October 26, 2000

As an african american, I have to say I'm against reparations. Which doesn't seem to be a popular people amongst my own people... In my view, I don't think this generation should have to pay for the sins of the past. It also smacks of "the world owes me a living" (40 acres and a mule, etc.) thought, which I am vehemently against.
posted by owillis at 3:24 PM on October 26, 2000

I also thought of reparations while reading this.

But who will pay Jourdan's living ancestors? Should the federal government foot the $11,000 bill (much more with interest) or should it come from the Colnel's descendants themselves?

I'm also curious about where this document comes from. Jourdan was obviously an educated and articulate man - I'm
interested in reading more of his story.
posted by aladfar at 3:25 PM on October 26, 2000

the letter is articulate and educated enough that I'm interested in verifying the source. while it's possible that his former owner educated him, this letter strikes me as *possibly* being written by a contemporary activist rather than an actual freedman.

either jourdan was a shrewd man with a strong sense of irony, or this is a piece of propaganda designed to show the injustices done to an intelligent, gentle, forgiving race.

posted by rebeccablood at 3:44 PM on October 26, 2000

In the letter it mentions sending the reparations to V. Winters, ESQ. I got the feeling the letter was written by the lawyer at the behest of Jourdan.

No matter who wrote it, it is powerful and moving.
posted by mutagen at 3:51 PM on October 26, 2000

I recognize this letter from the most recent Harper's (which, naturally, I don't have at work with me, and their website is of little help). I believe I recall that they list the publisher and the book title.

The article it's printed in is a roundtable in which a bunch of lawyers ponder the reparations issue from a legal standpoint. It's quite eye-opening on a number of levels.

And as a postscript, Harper's mentions that as a result of the roundtable (it implies, anyway), an actual suit is being prepared. I highly recommend the article (and wish I could link to it).
posted by Skot at 3:57 PM on October 26, 2000

The letter is reprinted from "The Freedmen's Book" (1865)
Lydia Maria Child, ed.

"During and after the Civil War, Child focused not only the elimination of slavery but on racial prejudice. In 1865, she wrote The Freedmen's Book, which was designed to foster the freedmen's racial pride and promote their literacy."
posted by Optamystic at 4:06 PM on October 26, 2000

whereas approximately 4,000,000 Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the united states and the 13 american colonies in the period 1619 through 1865 resolution 356 seeks to acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and to seek reparations. also, a Lydia Maria Child bio.

posted by riley370 at 8:04 PM on October 26, 2000

The letter follows a well-established tradition of anti-slavery narratives published throughout the 19th century. The text then might appear a little stilted because it follows in this tradition as well as because that's simply how writing -- even casual writing was. Personally, I don't think this in any way diminishes the power of the piece -- the irony is so understated, it's noble.

In any case, there's a text version of the letter with citation. I also came upon a census from the county in Tennessee where Anderson was a slave. His name is included. I guess this must be part of support material for kids studying this and other documents from the period.

posted by leo at 11:01 PM on October 26, 2000

no, I understand the style of writing--I was an english major, that's my favorite period.

but the sentiments expressed in the letter follow closely the stereotypical "noble slave" pattern that I've seen before (cf "Uncle Tom's Cabin").

if the letter is authentic, that's interesting. it just looked to me as if it could easily be a persuasion piece from an anti-discrimination group.

posted by rebeccablood at 11:13 PM on October 26, 2000

gee, thanks. Hollow "apologies" like this do nothing to lessen the evil of slavery. Saying, "sorry we put your people in chains and all that" is silly and goes more to alleviate "white guilt" than helping blacks in America today.
posted by owillis at 12:09 AM on October 27, 2000

Rebecca, there would have been a lot of collaboration between the Freedmen and Abolitionists so I mean, the letter may have been legitimate and at the same time it might have been touched up here and there by various editors on the way to publication. Who knows? If it's a work of propaganda, they did a darn good job of it.

In any case, it reminds me of a book I read while at college called "Putting On Old Master". The book was a collection of slave narratives and some of them were obvious pieces of propaganda written by Abolitionist hacks and others were pieces that rang completely true. It was a good book.
posted by leo at 12:58 AM on October 27, 2000

I'm not in favor of reparations either. I'd just be happy to be treated like the first-class, hard-working, tax-paying citizen I already am. My ancestors hard work should have least earned me that much.
We're getting there, though the news can be depressing some days...
posted by black8 at 4:11 AM on October 27, 2000

rcb: I am also suspicious of the stated origin of this letter. The "humour"---such as it is---seems a little too knowing. It seems as if it were written for an audience other than Colonel Anderson.

A funny exhange in the Harper's occurs under the heading "Pro Bono?":

Pires: I have a question for you all, and you should be as honest as you can be. When we put together the black farmers' case, I thought the only way I could get black folkd to trust a white lawyer was to give them a retainer agreement that said we would work for free, that they get 100 percent of their recovery. So I got 21,000 retainer agreements with black folks that said they'd get 100 percent of their recovery and we wouldn't get any money from them. And we have to petition the court for legal fees. My thinking was that many black folks, who aren't used to lawyers, would more likely trust us if we didn't take their money. So would you all work for free?

Sweet: What?

Scruggs: Um.

Gary: Clients sometimes try to negotiate me down to 10 percent on a case, and I say, "Why would you want me working unhappy for you? I'll get you 100,000 bucks. If you got me happy, I'll get you 2 million."

Pires: Maybe I'm wrong.

Hitt: I guess that issue's resolved.

(Harper's November 2000, p. 47-48.)
posted by mstillwell at 4:03 PM on December 9, 2000

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