Activity: Creating poetry from a freedman’s letter
Estimated time: 15-20 minutes
Learning objectives: analytical reading through close reading; engaging students’ creativity and curiosity; creating an argument using evidence.
Topic: emancipation; African American history; Civil War era.
Step one: Students will watch a brief 2-minute video by U.S. Poet Laureate Tracey K. Smith (available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lcLz6MjIWD8) in which she reads an excerpt from her poem “I will tell you the truth about this, I will tell you all about it.” It’s a poem she created from the letters of African American soldiers in the Civil War who were writing to ask for pensions.
Step two: While students watch the video, hand out a copy of a letter (below) from a formerly enslaved person named Jourdon Anderson. Provide context for the letter: Anderson had worked as a slave in Tennessee on a plantation for 32 years. During the Civil War, the Union army freed Anderson and he escaped to the north. His former master, Patrick Henry Anderson wrote him after the war ended to ask him to return to the plantation where he had once been a slave and to work for him. So he responded with this letter.
Step three: In partners or groups of three, ask students to read the letter aloud to each other slowly. Think about Tracey K. Smith’s deliberate cadence. Take turns, and switch between paragraphs. Instruct them to take their time and feel free to stop and reread things.
Step four: Ask students to discuss the following questions:
- What did freedom mean for Jourdon Anderson? How did it change things for him?
- Possible answers: Wages; safety; education. Changing ideas of what one could be proud of. He used to be proud to call PH Anderson master. Now he’s proud of his family, their future, his life. We see small hints that freedom is not always easy: people at church treat them kindly, but sometimes “we overhear others” saying that they had been slaves.
- From what you can tell from this letter, what did emancipation mean for P.H. Anderson, Jourdon’s former owner?
- Additional context: PH Anderson was in debt, and was trying to lure Jordan back to bring the harvest in and help him get out of debt. It didn’t work, and he had to sell his plantation. He died only a few years later. What’s amazing is that a historian named Raymond Winbush apparently tracked down PH Anderson’s descendants in the early 2000s and they’re still mad that Jordan didn’t come back. Ask for reactions.
- In contrast to the letters that Tracey K. Smith collected for her poem, which speak to the limitations of emancipation, this letter speaks to the power and meaning of emancipation.
- Ask students to work with their partner/group to do what Tracey K. Smith did. Take the letter and make it into a poem. Extract some lines, rearrange them, and use it to say something.
- It doesn’t have to be excellent poetry, but it should say something about the promise and limitations of emancipation.
Example of a finished poem based on Anderson’s letter:
I am doing tolerably well here.
I have often felt uneasy about you.
send us our wages for the time we served you.
I served you faithfully for thirty-two years
If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past
We can have little faith in your promises in the future.
glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon
there will be a day of reckoning
August 7, 1865
To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee
Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.
I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.
As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. 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. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. 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.
In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. 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. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.
Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.
From your old servant,