Letter from former slave living in Dayton hits the web

Authenticity of 1865 missive to his master the subject of debate.



The Internet has been buzzing this month about a letter written in 1865 from an escaped slave rejecting his master's request to leave Dayton and return to work for him on a Tennessee plantation.

The letter has created fodder for bloggers and has kept historians and librarians, including some locally, answering questions about whether the letter was authentic or a Black History Month hoax.

Dayton Metro librarian Nicole Eby said she has been busy over the past few weeks fielding inquiries about the letter that was first published in The New York Tribune 147 years ago.

Johns Hopkins University’s Michael Johnson, a professor of 19th century United States history, researched the letter.

He could not say beyond a doubt that the letter was authentic, but all indications are that it is legitimate.

“All the names are right,” he said. “Everything checks out in the letter.”

Jordan Anderson, who lived on Burns Avenue in Dayton and worked as a janitor, coachman, laborer and sexton, according to his April 19, 1905, Dayton Daily News obituary, is cited as the letter’s author.

“In a tone that could be described either as ‘impressively measured’ or ‘the deadest of deadpan comedy,’ the former slave, in the most genteel manner, basically tells the old slave master to kiss his rear end,” Trymaine Lee wrote for the Huffington Post website on Feb. 1.

In the letter published by The New York Tribune, a Republican abolitionist newspaper, mere months before the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery was officially adopted in December of 1865, Anderson makes his own request of his former master: back pay for him and his wife Amanda.

“I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At $25 dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,680. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to,” the letter says.

“Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.”

Compensation was to be sent in care of V. Winters of Dayton. A barrister (an attorney) named V. Winters lived in Dayton during that time period.

Before escaping slavery, Anderson toiled on Col. P.H. Anderson’s plantation in Spring, Tenn., with cruelty as his only pay.

It was a life in a place Anderson (spelled Jourdon or Jordon on some documents) fled in a hail of gunfire and was not willing to return to, despite his former master’s insistence that things would be better if he came back.

Although no names are listed on the 1860 federal slave schedule, slaves matching the description of Anderson and his wife were among the 32 black and ‘mulatto’ slaves Col. Anderson owned in Tennessee, Johnson said.

Johnson’s research of census information shows that a Jordan and Amanda Anderson, also matching the couple described in the letter, lived in Dayton in 1870 with four children, and other records show the couple had as many as 11 children.

Two children living with them in Dayton at that time were ages 19 and 12 and born in Tennessee. A 5-year-old and a 1-year-old were born in Dayton, Johnson said. Later records show the Andersons had as many as 11 children.

According to census information, Jordan Anderson could not read or write, but his 19-year-old daughter Jane could, as indicated on the 1870 census, Johnson said.

In addition to that, Anderson’s family lived around a wide range of white people who could have helped with the letter, Johnson said.

“The ideas and tone of letter come from Jordan Anderson. I don’t doubt those came from Jordan Anderson. We have no reason to think they didn’t and all reason to think they did,” Johnson said. “It is certainly not unusual for former slaves to feel this way.”

Johnson pointed to other examples of letters from former slaves to their former masters.

Social reformer Frederick Douglass famously wrote a pointed letter to his former owner Thomas Auld on the anniversary of his emancipation in 1848.

Douglass describes slavery as a condition he “dreaded more than death.”

“The grim horrors of slavery rise in all their ghastly terror before me, the wails of millions pierce my heart, and chill my blood. I remember the chain, the gag, the bloody whip, the deathlike gloom overshadowing the broken spirit of the fettered bondman, the appalling liability of his being torn away from wife and children, and sold like a beast in the market,” Douglass wrote in his letter.

Anderson described slavery similarly and indicated that females were sexually abused.

“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.”

With tombstones that read “father” and “mother,” Jordan and Amanda Anderson are buried next to each other at Woodland Cemetery in Dayton.

At least three other relatives, including son Dr. Valentine Winters Anderson, who died in 1920, are buried nearby.

Eby of Dayton Metro Library Magazine and Special Collections Division said that it is not clear if any of the Anderson children had offspring.

The Andersons were married in 1848, when he was 23 and she was 19.

Amanda Anderson and her husband had five children between ages 3 and 16 years living with them in 1880, according to census records.

On the 1900 census, then 52-year-old Amanda said that six of her 11 children were living.

Eby found records through newspaper and census searches that indicate the Andersons’ daughter Eva Johnson had step-children.

The fate of the Andersons’ children has aroused curiosity since the letter began circulating the Internet.

Eby has received several inquiries about the Andersons, including one from CBS News.

The case is one in which “the more I discover, the more intrigued I am,” she wrote in an email.

Local historian Margaret Peters said Jordan Anderson’s letter is an important part of Dayton history.

“So often we forget our past. To realize a former slave lived here and his master wanted him back connects Dayton to national history and the Civil War.”

Johnson said it may never be known what drew Anderson to Dayton or when he arrived.

Eby traces his presence in Dayton back to at least 1882, when he worked as a janitor.

Johnson said the Dayton man represents tens of thousands of former slaves who tried to create lives in Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and other free states.

“To me what it seems to be is a story about how a slave seized an opportunity to get a new life.”

“It’s a genuine emancipation, a true liberating experience that is, in effect, self-done,” he said.

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2384 or arobinson@DaytonDailyNews.com.

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