Reflections on Historical Leadders
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Reflections on Historical Leaders

February, 2016

Dr. Rick Pointer
Professor of History, Westmont

Each February our nation celebrates Black History Month. Since its official inception in 1976, this annual observance has helped to bring much greater attention to the African American historical experience. Though critics have questioned whether such a focus divorces black history too much from American history in general, there is no doubt that the month has played a part in schoolchildren and adults today knowing far more than earlier generations about the collective African American experience and the particular achievements of Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Richard Allen, Malcolm X, Jesse Owens, Benjamin Banneker, W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, Ida B. Wells and dozens of others. In highlighting such individuals and their contributions, however, it is important to go beyond a superficial “greatest hits” approach to black history and wrestle more fully with the complexities of what it has meant to be black in America over the past four centuries. For that reason, it is often more instructive to explore the lives of “ordinary” African Americans, who upon further examination usually turn out to be anything but ordinary.

Take, for example, Jourdon Anderson. What historians know of him consists primarily of a single letter he wrote to his former master in August 1865. In the wake of the end of the Civil War, Col. P. H. Anderson of Big Spring, Tennessee had apparently contacted his ex-slave about returning from Ohio to work for him as a wage laborer. Remarkably, Jourdon responded, perhaps because it allowed him to articulate much of what he had never been able to express during his thirty-two years of slave service. After noting his surprise that Col. Anderson was still alive – “I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house” – he asked his master “what the good chance is you propose to give me” since in Ohio he was making twenty-five dollars a month plus food and clothing, living in a comfortable home, having his children attend school regularly, participating in church, and being accorded a respect and dignity (“the folks call her [my wife] Mrs. Anderson”) wholly absent while a slave. Anderson then indicated that he and his wife would need some proof of the white landowner’s good intent: “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.” The freedman calculated that at something over eleven thousand dollars and then pointedly wrote, “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.”

Anderson’s eloquent testimony to the injustices of slavery and the aspirations of millions of freed people – “The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits” – reminds us of the importance, whether during February or any other month, of understanding the lives of African Americans, famous and not-so-famous, and seeing them at the core of who and what we have been as a people and a nation.