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To my old master

To look at the effects of slavery on our thinking about others.

by Helen Bryant

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To look at the effects of slavery on our thinking about others.

Preparation and materials


  1. Today we are going to think about a letter that was written in 1865, two years after slavery was made illegal in the United States. The letter was written in the year the American Civil War ended.
  2. The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865. It began because the southern states, united in their use of slave labour, disagreed with the election, in 1861, of Abraham Lincoln as President on an anti-slavery programme. They maintained that each state had the right to fix its own laws on slavery, which in practice meant they wished to keep slavery. When Abraham Lincoln was elected, 11 southern states withdrew from the United States of America.
    These southern states formed the Confederate States of America and were known as the ‘Confederates’. The 23 northern states were known as the ‘Union’. They, together with seven other states which had not yet joined the Union, fought the war to save the USA from breaking up.
  3. In 1863, two years into the war, President Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation. This proclaimed the abolition of slavery, including slavery in the southern states in rebellion against the Union (but not for slaves in the border states which remained loyal to the Union).

    The Emancipation Proclamation applied to 3.1 million of the 4 million slaves in the United States. The Proclamation immediately freed 50,000 slaves; with nearly all the rest of the 3.1 million freed as Union armies advanced south.

    After four years of warfare, mostly within the southern states, the Confederacy surrendered and slavery was outlawed everywhere in the nation.
  4. In 1865, at the end of the war, Colonel P. H. Anderson, who lived in the southern state of Tennessee, wrote to one of his former slaves, who he had named Jourdon Anderson. He asked Jourdon to return to work on his farm.

    Jourdon Anderson, however, had moved to Ohio, and had found paid work, and so was able to support his family independently. In August 1865, Jourdon sent a reply to his old master. This is what he wrote.
  5. Read the letter: see ‘Preparation and materials’.
  6. This is a letter that clearly shows the intelligence and ability of someone who had been regarded as less than human in his lifetime.

Time for reflection

What is it that makes us deem one group of people less intelligent, less able, or sub-human, just because they happen to be different from us, or because history has endowed one set of people with the power to make another set of people subordinate?

What struck you most about this letter? (Pause)

What lessons do you draw from it? (Pause)

Let us resolve to treat everyone with fairness and understanding.

Help me to see the prejudice within my life,
and root it out.


Download a version of ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord’, which has been called ‘the battle hymn of the Republic’ (widely available).

Publication date: May 2012   (Vol.14 No.5)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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