Philip Jordan and the October Revolution

In 1917, writes Jamie H. Cockfield, the American Ambassador’s valet reported on revolutionary events in Russia through letters to the family at home.

When President Wilson appointed David Francis of Missouri as United States Ambassador to the Russian Empire in 1916, the new diplomat took with him to St Petersburg his faithful valet, Philip Jordan. Born the son of an emancipated slave in 1868, Jordan had entered the service of the Francis family in 1889 when David Francis was the Democratic Governor of Missouri. Except for a period of service under Francis’ successor, Governor William J. Stone, Jordan remained in the employment of the Francis family until his death in 1941.

Jordan was only one of two blacks known to have been an eye-witness observer of the Russian Revolution of 1917 (the American embassy also employed a black Trinidadian cook), but his letters from the Russian capital at the time are the only account of events written by a member of his race. Moreover, they are the only record of events written by a westerner of working-class origin.1

The correspondence was sent mainly to the Francis family, especially to Mrs Jane Francis, the Ambassador’s wife, who had given Jordan the little education that he had received. The letters are full of the activities of ‘the Gov’, but Jordan also described the turbulent times in Russia as he saw and understood them. Although sometimes his comprehension of events was naive, his account of the Revolution provides a different perspective from that of more sophisticated writers such as John Reed.

Most of the letters in the collection were handwritten by Jordan, although some are copies made later by an unknown person.

Unfortunately not all of Jordan’s letters survived, for Jordan referred to some not found in the collection. The first extant letter is dated September 19th, 1917, sixteen months after the writer’s arrival in Petrograd in May, 1916.

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