Opening Primary Source for Teaching Reconstruction: The Jourdon Anderson Letter 



“Dayton, Ohio,

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 provisions 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,

Jourdon Anderson.”

Cultural Activity: Juneteenth Celebrations  

While Juneteenth often coincides with the end of the school year, celebrating the holiday can take place anytime as its imprecise date is indicative of the rolling emancipation experience. For a short article on the history of Juneteenth, click here. Activities with students can include creating playlists of historic black music, parading, reciting or writing speeches, cooking, playing instruments, and discussing park segregation. Watch Beyonce’s performance of the black national anthem at Coachella, read the lyrics, and analyze the song’s meaning. Discuss the use of black sorority, fraternity, and university marching bands. What is the significance? How does this relate to Reconstruction?

The Fisk Jubilee Singers and W.E.B. Du Bois’ World’s Fair in Paris: Analyzing Music and Photography from Reconstruction and Early Jim Crow

Photography Exercise: The Library of Congress holds hundreds of photographs W.E.B. Du Bois commissioned for the 1900 World’s Fair of African Americans taken less than five years after the birth of American segregation, while Ida B. Wells was fighting lynching, and just as Jack Johnson was ascending as an internationally famous sports champion. All three Americans were trying to transform race relations by using mass entertainment and culture that were displayed, showed, or exhibited at World’s Fairs or amusement parks. Watch the section on W.E.B. Du Bois’ efforts to use photography to fight racial caricatures in Hour 4 of “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War” and / or listen to the NPR excerpt below about the exhibition. The images can be found online here. Select one image that speaks to you. Analyze the photograph. If you’ve never analyzed a photograph before, things to possibly consider include framing, focus (foreground/ background), setting, perspective, symmetry, positive and negative space, lines, lighting, posing, motion, tone, subject, theme, angle, or composition. Be sure to include your photo in your assignment and be prepared to share with the class. This same activity can be done with the politics of respectability in the Fisk Jubilee Singer portraits below.

Fisk Jubilee Singers Analyzing Songs Exercise: After watching the excerpt in Hour 4 on the Fisk Jubilee Singers or using this two-minute clip from Henry Louis Gates, Jr. below, print out the lyrics to “Wade in the Water” and analyze how the song was used during slavery and after. How do the lyrics and their meanings change in their different contexts? What do the songs sound like? Why?

Black, James Wallace, 1825-1896, photographer. Jubilee Singers, Fisk University, Nashville, Tenn. [graphic]. [Nashville, Tenn. ] : American Missionary Association, [between 1870 and 1880]

The Jubilee Singers, circa 1873, from Pike’s The Jubilee Singers and their campaign for twenty thousand dollars.






Sketch of the Jubilee Hall at Fisk University, named for the group. From Pike’s The Jubilee Singers and their campaign for twenty thousand dollars.


Analyzing Film in the History Classroom: Birth of a Nation 

Thinking critically about historical films and movies:

  • Most importantly, think about context: When was the movie created? Who directed it and what else have they directed? Who wrote it? Do you have a sense of audience reception at the time? What genre of film is this?
  • Narration: Does the film have voice-over narration? Is it silent? Are there title cards? Is the film linear? Are there flashbacks? Think about how the story is constructed and what effect this has on the story.
  • Character names: Do character names reveal anything about the characters or the plot?
  • Cinematic techniques: Did the director use any reoccurring techniques in the film?
  • Costuming, makeup, and set design: What does the clothing and make up tell you about each character and their relationships with each other? What does the set look like and what does it tell you about the story? Why is the setting important in this movie?
  • Camera angles, speed, and composition: How is the position of the camera angle emphasizing or deemphasizing elements of the plot? How is speed and zoom used? What about framing? Does the camera pan or stay still? How does this impact your emotional reaction to the film?
  • Use of color: Is the film in black and white? Are there any color palettes used throughout the film? For example, does the movie have a warm, rosy glow or a darker, bluish hue? How does this set the mood for the film?
  • Music and sound: Does the soundtrack develop plot lines? What non-spoken sounds are important to the film? Is silence used as a cinematic tool and, if so, how?
  • Correlatives: Does the director use metaphors to add another layer to the story or develop it in another way? Are there any objects in the film that somehow symbolizes a character’s development? A famous example of this is Holly Golightly’s refusal to name her stray cat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
  • Dialogue and acting: How do characters communicate with each other?
Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University (2018-) and President of the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography. She is the co-founder and C.E.O. of U.S. History Scene and an Executive Advisor to the documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" (now streaming PBS, 2019).