Laurence Fishburne Reads a Former Slave’s Incredible Letter to His Old Master (1865)

Lawrence Fish­burne brings a degree of grav­i­ty to his roles offered by few oth­er liv­ing actors. That has secured his place in pop cul­ture as Mor­pheus from The Matrix, for exam­ple. But he could even mar­shal it ear­ly in his career, as evi­denced by his role as Apoc­a­lypse Now’s “Mr. Clean,” which he took on at just four­teen years old. But it was a much more recent per­for­mance he gave for Let­ters Live, which you can see in the video above, that clear­ly brings out the qual­i­ties that have made him a beloved and endur­ing fig­ure onscreen: not just his moral seri­ous­ness, but this sense of humor as well.

“To my old mas­ter,” Fish­burne begins, get­ting a laugh right away. The let­ter in ques­tion, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, was orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in 1865 by a man named Jour­don Ander­son, who had escaped a life of slav­ery in Ten­nessee with his wife the pre­vi­ous year. Hav­ing since fall­en on hard times, that for­mer mas­ter had writ­ten to Ander­son and asked him to come back to work on the plan­ta­tion. “I have often felt uneasy about you,” Ander­son writes. “I thought the Yan­kees would’ve hung you before this for har­bor­ing Rebs that they found at your house,” among oth­er crimes he recalls.

Hav­ing set him­self and his fam­i­ly up in Ohio, Ander­son could hard­ly have felt tempt­ed to go down South again. “I want to know par­tic­u­lar­ly what the good chance is you pro­pose to give me,” he writes. “I am doing tol­er­a­bly well here. I get $25 a month, with vict­uals and cloth­ing, have a com­fort­able home for Mandy — the folks call her Mrs. Ander­son — and the chil­dren, Mil­lie, Jane, and Grundy, go to school and are learn­ing well.” But “if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will bet­ter be able to decide whether it will be to my advan­tage to move back again.”

Fish­burne deliv­ers these lines with a thick lay­er of irony, as Ander­son no doubt intend­ed. “Mandy says she would be afraid to go back with­out some proof that you were dis­posed to treat us kind­ly and just­ly, and we have con­clud­ed to test your sin­cer­i­ty by ask­ing you to send us our wages for the time that we served you.” When Fish­burne says that, he prac­ti­cal­ly gets a stand­ing ova­tion, and indeed, the let­ter met with a favor­able recep­tion in its day as well — not from Colonel P. H. Ander­son him­self, but from the read­ers of the news­pa­pers in which it was reprint­ed. In the end, Jour­don Ander­son kept his free­dom, and got fame last­ing more than a cen­tu­ry after his death to go with it.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Hear the Voic­es of Amer­i­cans Born in Slav­ery: The Library of Con­gress Fea­tures 23 Audio Inter­views with For­mer­ly Enslaved Peo­ple (1932–75)

What the Text­books Don’t Tell Us About The Atlantic Slave Trade: An Ani­mat­ed Video Fills In His­tor­i­cal Gaps

The Names of 1.8 Mil­lion Eman­ci­pat­ed Slaves Are Now Search­able in the World’s Largest Genealog­i­cal Data­base, Help­ing African Amer­i­cans Find Lost Ances­tors

A New Data­base Will Doc­u­ment Every Slave House in the U.S.: Dis­cov­er the “Sav­ing Slave Hous­es Project”

The Atlantic Slave Trade Visu­al­ized in Two Min­utes: 10 Mil­lion Lives, 20,000 Voy­ages, Over 315 Years

“Ask a Slave” by Azie Dungey Sets the His­tor­i­cal Record Straight in a New Web Series

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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