By Tamara Shiloh
Anti-literacy laws were used by Southern plantation owners throughout the antebellum period. An extension of slavery codes, forcing illiteracy was a tactic used to dehumanize and control enslaved black people. Under Mississippi law, a white person could serve up to a year in prison as “a sentence for teaching a slave to read.”
Despite attempts to prevent slaves from learning, blacks would develop strategies to educate themselves.
Lilly Ann Granderson (1816–1889) was born a slave in Virginia. Not much has been recorded about her childhood, but it is known that she was transferred to Kentucky at an early age. There she became close to her owner’s children, who taught young Lilly Ann to read and write.
It was through reading that Lilly discovered the places in the North where slavery had been abolished; places she wanted to see, live. What no one knew was the real lesson Lilly was learning: the path to freedom is education.
Lilly Ann wanted to share her knowledge with others. It was not illegal for slaves to read and write in Kentucky, but it was not encouraged and could be punished severely. On Sundays, Lilly would visit enslaved friends on the plantation. They hid in the woods and recited the alphabet, drawing the letters in the dirt.
After a few years, the lessons would come to an end.
After her owner’s death, Lilly was sold to a slaveholder in Mississippi and began to work in his cotton fields. Unaccustomed to hard work and heat, her health began to decline. She was then moved to her owner’s home in Natchez.
It was there that Granderson recalled the lessons she learned and taught in Kentucky and decided to force change. Again, she risked severe punishment, even death, for secretly establishing a midnight school for slaves.
Local authorities were blind to Granderson’s plans. Classes, attended by only 12 students at a time, took place at night from 11:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. In seven years, hundreds of people passed through the secret class. After learning to read and write, they graduated. Twelve other children then became Granderson’s students.
The pioneering educator helped many people escape slavery because they learned to forge passes to freedom.
But the news was eventually leaked to local authorities. Even so, neither Lilly nor her students were arrested. It was discovered that although there were laws prohibiting free whites and blacks from educating slaves, there were none against a slave teaching another slave.
In 1863, Union troops occupied Natchez. With them came missionaries from the North to establish schools for slaves. They had no idea that Granderson had ever educated black people. They were surprised to learn that she too was a slave. As a freedwoman, she was hired as a teacher by the American Missionary Association.
Share with young people the importance of literacy and the fight to make it possible for black children. Read them “Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School” by Janet Halfmann.