1. Education
Robert McNamara

A Letter From a Former Slave

By February 1, 2012

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A letter from a former slave to his master has gone viral on the internet this week. The letter, in which the freedman chides the Tennessee man who had owned him and his family prior to the Civil War, also made an appearance in northern newspapers in the summer of 1865.

The New York Tribune published the text of the former slave's letter on August 22, 1865. An introductory note read: "The following is a genuine document. It was dictated by the old servant, and contains his ideas and forms of expression."

It was common practice at the time for newspapers to reprint items, and the New York Tribune attributed the letter to the Cincinnati Commercial.

As Cincinnati had a history of abolitionist activity, it's perhaps no surprise that the letter may have originated there. Whoever transcribed the former slave's thoughts likely injected the cutting sarcasm, such as the calculations of back pay that would be owed to someone who had labored for years in slavery. (The letter also appeared in a book published in 1865, which gave the place and date of its origin as Dayton, Ohio, on August 7, 1865.)

It's also no surprise that the letter would have appeared in the New York Tribune, the newspaper of the legendary editor Horace Greeley, who had been a longtime opponent of slavery.

The "Letter From a Freedman to His Old Master" appeared on page 7 of the New York Tribune. On the previous page of the same edition, on August 22, 1865, the newspaper published a speech by General Oliver Otis Howard, the first commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau.

General Howard's speech is fascinating, as he expressed his intentions for the Freedmen's Bureau, which included opening schools in the South to educate former slaves.

And both items in the newspaper demonstrate how, a few months after the end of the Civil War, attention was being directed to the plight of the freed slaves.

Illustration: Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune/Library of Congress


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