My name is Kristina Cummings. I am a Junior at SUNY New Paltz and this semester I am interning at Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz.
I was given an interesting task last week – an exercise in what training to be a historian actually means for me. A letter from 1865 recently re-surfaced on a blog called “Letters of Note”, expressing the thoughts and feelings of a freed slave to his former master. The letter has gone viral and the language and tone used by the freed man, Jourdon Anderson, is cause for its validity to be questioned.
For anyone who has not yet had an opportunity to read “To My Old Master”, I would strongly recommend it. Personally, one of my favorite parts is the section where Jourdon is bold enough to “test [Anderson’s] sincerity by asking” for back pay for his time “served”. The sum of earnings that Jourdon calculates amounts 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.”
My first mission in determining if this letter was actually written by a freed slave was to go back to the blog and look at the source. “Letters of Note” cites the letter as coming from The Freedmen’s Book by L. Maria Child, published in 1865. Digging a little deeper, I found an e-copy of the book, which Child prefaced with a letter to the reader, saying that she hopes they will use the book to find strength and courage and to become educated.
Next, I decided to find out who L. Maria Child was. Within a few minutes of searching, I found a short bio about the writer: Child was well educated, married a political activist and lawyer, and became an advocate for abolition, women’s rights and Native American’s rights. This was a little concerning for me, because an abolitionist writer could probably tell a pretty great story about a freed slave writing to his old master. So I dug in a little more.
Searching for the letter and Jourdon Anderson, I came across several other blogs and other people who also thought that the letter could be forged. Eventually, one of these blogs, “Black Media Scoop” included the image of the newspaper article from 1865 featuring Jourdon’s letter.
So after all that, I know it’s true. Jourdon Anderson dictated this letter and it was printed in the New York Daily Tribune in 1865. The process of getting to this point took me around four hours; luckily technology and the Internet allowed me to be sitting at my laptop the whole time. But the greatest part of the whole thing is that I now know what it takes to validate a source and explore history.
If you want to learn more about slavery in the Hudson Valley, come to The Missing Chapter: Untold Stories of the African American Experience in the Hudson Valley; A Talk with historian Susan Stessin-Cohn at 4pm on Sunday, February 26th in Deyo Hall, 6 Broadhead Avenue.