Quick Notes:

  • When colonel Patrick Henry Anderson’s plantation was captured by Union soldiers during the Civil War, a slave of his named Jordan Anderson escaped to Dayton, Ohio, with his family.
  • After the war, Colonel Anderson wrote a letter to Jordan (his former slave), asking him to return to the plantation.
  • Jordan Anderson dictated a dark, humorous letter to an abolitionist employer who typed the letter, and the response to the request to return to the plantation was published in a Cincinnati newspaper.

“Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jordan and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can,” the now-freedman wrote to his former master.

You read that right; colonel Anderson asked his former slave to come back to work on his plantation, promising to do right by him. That’s akin to requesting a bird to come back to its cage after a weekend in Eden.

Jordan Anderson was a free bird, earning $25 a month, and providing for his family. But the colonel was having a decidedly more difficult time following a Union raid on his property. 

In the spring of 1865, the Civil War had just concluded and harvest season was rapidly approaching. Colonel Anderson needed help, but had no money to pay for labor. Somehow in his twisted mind, he felt that Jordan owed him a favor, and even with that ridiculous notion, Jordan was cordial to his former master, spoke nicely of the ladies in the Colonel’s family, and sent them his love.

“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 [Patrick’s son] intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance,” the former slave wrote to his master.

Dark humor in tragedy

This is the point where you might expect Anderson to launch into a tirade meant to eviscerate the colonel. Certainly, any combination of four-letter words and juvenile insults would be understandable, but to a far greater and more humorous effect, he keeps on:

I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and [my wife] twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for [her], our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars… Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio.”

It’s evident that Jordan’s comedic stylings erred toward the dark or satirical. The institution of slavery was a deplorable industry of climbing the economic latter by ripping the life away from people based on their race. The colonel’s family was able to prop themselves upon the shoulders of Jordan and his family, and never once paid them for their toil.

By exposing the absurdity of the colonel’s request, Jordan has made the best case for reparations.

As Mark Twain once said, “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”

Dark humor has been historically utilized to counteract the negative, often apocalyptic aspects of history. Humans have dominated others since the dawn of existence, and there are horrific parallels between slavery in the U.S. and the Holocaust.

Runaway, freed slaves considered contrabands gather in the North after escaping slavery
Photo by Hulton Archive via Getty Images – Portrait of Civil War ‘contrabands,’ fugitive slaves who were emancipated upon reaching the North, sitting outside a house, possibly in Freedman’s Village in Arlington, Virginia, mid-1860s. Up to 1100 former slaves at a time were housed in the government established Freedman’s Village in the thirty years in which it served as a temporary shelter for runaway and liberated slaves.

Ohio State’s Whitney Carpenter writes in “Laughter in a Time of Tragedy: Examining Humor in the Holocaust,” that “In [the Jew’s] laughter, they found the strength to press on.” Carpenter presses her point with the introduction of dark humor, or in her words, “tragicomedy.” Carpenter explains that “[Tragicomedy] does not replace or absorb the tragedy, but just suspends it through some comic relief… It allows the victim to embrace the situation and address it through a form of emotional release.”

Defiance in the face of hatred

Now imagine for a moment the hatred and animosity you’d feel toward someone who tried to shoot you. Anderson closes his letter with a pristine example of tragicomedy: “Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.”

A former New York Times staffer and author named Mel Watkins later wrote in “Black Humor from Slavery to Stepin Fetchit,” that, “Already blacks had discovered that a happy, benign countenance was a great buffer against the brutality of slavery.” And, “Many of the strutting, prancing steps performed by slaves and greeted with such hearty laughter from whites were intended as satiric commentary on the highfalutin airs, pretensions, and gullibility of their masters [sic].”

The irony falls on the colonel, in the fact that he can simply ask his former slave to return. Perhaps even more of an example of tragicomedy, in an unbelievable twist, Colonel Anderson’s surviving family, to this day, is still bitter that Jordan never returned. They can’t believe Jordan wouldn’t return to help, which makes about as much sense as Hitler joining the Peace Corp.

That should help understand why the case for reparations is so difficult to solve, as those deep-seated racist notions behind the institution of slavery still prevail. And as that thought marinates, consider if Jordan got his justice when he wrote:

“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.” Colonel Anderson died two years later, deeply in debt, while Jordan lived into the 20th century, with his family.

It appears as though Jordan got the last laugh.

A deeper dive: Related reading from the 101