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Robert Anderson, b. 1819
The Anderson Surpriser. Written After He Was Seventy-Five Years of Age. The Author Was Born in Liberty County, Ga., on the 22d Day of February, in the Year of Our Lord, 1819, and United with the Methodist Episcopal Church in the Year 1839. This Book Contains an Account of His Florida and Northern Trip, Written by Himself, Giving Much Valuable Information of the People Among Whom He Had Been Several Months
Macon, GA: The Author, 1895.


Reverend Robert Anderson (1819-?) was one of the best known traveling preachers from the state of Georgia in the late nineteenth century. He was born into slavery in Liberty County, Georgia, on February 22, 1819. His grandmother scraped together enough money to pay for his education, and a relatively liberal master allowed Anderson to hire his time at four different banks in Macon. After saving almost $1,900 in wages, Anderson purchased his own liberty for $1,000 and that of his first wife for $500. Upon receiving his freedom in 1839, he became a citizen, joined the Methodist Church, and married. After his manumission, Anderson became a preacher and established a home in Sandersville, Georgia. He traveled the Southern states, those along the eastern seaboard, and the Northern states, selling many volumes of his autobiography with different titles. Anderson remarried in 1886. His wife gave birth to a daughter in 1889 and a son in 1891. Little is known of Anderson’s life after the printing of The Anderson Surpriser in 1895, though the 1900 census shows that he and his family still lived in Sandersville.

The Anderson Surpriser relates Anderson’s traveling experiences over several months from 1893 to 1895, when he was known as one of the oldest African American men alive in Georgia. Reverend Anderson keeps a relatively detailed account of his journey, and at first glance, it may appear to be only a travel log that comments on the weather and general courtesy of the people in the towns he visits. But he urges readers to think of his narrative as a "surprise" because so many people have come and gone since he has been alive, and it surprises him to experience even relatively mundane events (visiting cities, preaching, selling copies of his autobiography) at 75 years of age (p. 24). The perspective with which he writes his account can be attributed to his feeling of gratitude for a full, long life, and Anderson presents himself as quite confident in his optimism, friendliness, and humility. While his story seems to focus on his success selling books (he interprets his own book sales as a measure of lingering racism, noting how people react when he tries to sell them a book), accounts of his personal interactions show the piety, wisdom, and gratitude he gained during his career.

Anderson begins his travels with a tour of northern and central Florida, where he establishes a pattern of judging each town by the courtesy and generosity of its citizens. In 1893, he visits Jacksonville, where he spends one week and four days, and “did very well, considering the dull times . . .[and] can report favorably regarding my success” (20). He then spends two weeks in St. Augustine, where he does as well as in any other town of that size. He revisits this area a year later and he states that “Mr. Hard Times had called just previous” to his visit (p. 42). Yet he continues to find friends wherever he travels: “It is surprising to me, but yet it is true” (p. 25).

His northern trip starts in South Carolina in 1894 and provides a considerable contrast to his southern journey. Anderson travels to the North for the first time to let the people see a man who freed himself, his wife, mother and grandmother from bondage. He observes that he had very little economic success in Philadelphia and especially New York City, where three different churches tell him they would buy a book, but do not. He begins his trip with the expectation that Northerners would behave without prejudice, but after struggling to sell his books, he states that he prefers “plantation manners” (p. 68). Even after a rich man from New York City tells him he does not care who he is or where he came from, Anderson decides that he does not desire to “brand the whole North” because of what one man says (pp. 80-81). This attitude encourages him to travel to New Haven, Connecticut—where he does as well in half the time as he did in New York (p. 90)—and Boston, where he says that “the white people have treated me with due respect, buying my books and giving me their money” (p. 105).

This volume cannot be described as a slave narrative, but he does provide information about slavery and its lingering effects, including racism, throughout the eastern United States, and their effect on the economy. Throughout the work, Anderson emphasizes that book sales are his principal means of providing for his family, and during his career, it becomes apparent that he develops an ability to converse with strangers for hours at a time. He learns how to foster good relationships and increase his chances of making a sale, and this method allows him to continue supporting himself during the 1890s, when he is 75 years old. Ultimately, The Anderson Surpriser is the story of a pious and elderly African American man whose success as a preacher-salesman and freed slave provides insight into the post-bellum economy and an example of faith, perseverance and gratitude.

Works Consulted: Anderson, Robert, The Life of Rev. Robert Anderson. Born the 22d Day of February, in the Year of Our Lord 1819, and Joined the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1839. This Book Shall Be Called the Young Men's Guide, Or, The Brother in White, Documenting the American South; Armstrong, Thomas F, "The Building of a Black Church: Community in Post Civil War Liberty County, Georgia," The Georgia Historical Quarterly 66.3 (1982): 346-367; Ransom, Roger L., and Richard Sutch, "The Ex-Slave in the Post-Bellum South: A Study of the Economic Impact of Racism in a Market Environment," The Journal of Economic History 33.1 (1973): 131-48; United States Census Office, Population Schedules of the Twelfth Census of the United States, Washington: National Archives, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, 196-, Series T623, Roll 228, p. 154.

May Anderton

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