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Ex-slave's note to master a curious satire

BY ALLEN G. BREED AND HILLEL ITALIE

The Associated Press

The photograph, 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 just 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."

Letter points to uneasiness

Addressed to 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" (there are various spellings of the name) and were "promising to do better for me than anybody else can." But, he adds, "I have often felt uneasy about you."

He informs the colonel that he's now making a respectable wage in Dayton, Ohio, and that his children are going to school. He tallies the monetary value of his services while on Anderson's plantation -- $11,608 -- then adds, "we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you."

Turning serious, he alludes to violence committed against women in Tennessee and wonders what would happen to his 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."

From horror to humor

Anderson's words are also a puzzle: How could an illiterate man 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.

"The sly irony is very much in the Mark Twain style," Twain biographer Ron Powers says of the letter.

Records show Jordan Anderson was born 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. One of the general's sons, Patrick Henry Anderson, owned Jordan and other slaves by the mid-1840s. Jordan Anderson married Amanda McGregor in 1848, and they had 11 children.

Union troops camped on the plantation, and Jordan was freed in 1864.

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 Roy E. Finkenbine, a professor at the University of Detroit-Mercy who is planning a biography of Anderson. The letter was originally published in August 1865 by the Cincinnati Commercial, a paper with Republican leanings.

Anderson likely made his way to Dayton with the help of Winters' son-in-law, Dr. Clarke McDermont, the surgeon in charge of the Cumberland Military Hospital in Nashville, where both Anderson and his wife worked for a time, says Finkenbine, who places Anderson and his family in Dayton by August 1864.

According to probate records, Jordan Anderson died on April 15, 1905.

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