Story of Natchez woman, secret school told in new book

Published 12:03 am Wednesday, February 28, 2018

by Sabrina Simms

NATCHEZ — Of all the heroes in black history with untold stories, Natchez’s Lilly Ann Granderson is no longer one of them.

Children’s book author, Janet Halfmann, wrote “Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School.”

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Recently published, the book tells the story of Granderson’s childhood, her life as a slave and the years after her release when she taught at a Union School in Natchez.

Granderson was born in 1816. She worked indoors with a family in Kentucky before she was transported down the river to Mississippi.

The heat from working on a plantation caused Granderson to become ill, so she begged her master to let her work at his house in Natchez.

There, she established a secret school that taught 12 slave children how to read and write. Mississippi law prohibited the education of slaves in the mid-1800s, so Granderson taught from midnight to 2 a.m.

Halfmann said many of the stories she read about Granderson did not tell about her life after the Civil War, until now.

“I’ve been writing children’s books for about 18 years,” Halfmann said. “A lot of my books are about animals and nature, but I also write about amazing people.”

Halfmann said most of her research comes from the book “A Woman’s Life Work: Labors and Experiences” by Laura Smith Haviland.

Haviland’s book refers to Granderson as Milla Granson, however, later research identified her as the same woman.

“In my research, I’ve read a lot about enslaved people,” Halfmann said. “Even though it was illegal for slaves to learn how to read and write, a lot of them still did.”

Halfmann said she studied the teachers from the time period who made education for slaves possible.

“I started this story 10 years ago,” Halfmann said. “I found a sentence here and there about different teachers in that time. … They called her the midnight teacher and that fascinated me.”

Halfmann met and talked with some of Granderson’s direct descendants, including Charles Diggs Jr. — Granderson’s great-grandson.

Halfmann said although the family did not have any memories of Granderson or stories about her, they had a family obituary for her daughter, which Halfmann used to trace Granderson’s connection to Natchez Seminary — now Jackson State University.

“Granderson’s daughter was in the first graduating class from Natchez Seminary and her son was a minister,” Halfmann said.

“I also found (Granderson’s) will. Even though I didn’t include that in the book, it made me feel like I knew her better.”

Halfmann found Granderson’s home address on Abbott Street from her will. Although the house is no longer there, Halfmann visited Natchez and took a picture of herself standing in the yard where it once was.

“Her story just captivated me,” Halfmann said. “She felt that education was power. … If you have an education you can do so much more. She felt that education led to a better life.”

Halfmann said Granderson’s secret school was later discovered, but for unexplained reasons, she was never punished.

“I think it’s such an important story to see how important education was to enslaved people,” Halfmann said.

“They would risk their lives to learn. Her legacy is continuing on and on. It shows how one person can do so much. I hope (the book) inspires kids to value their right to learn and inspires other writers and students to learn about others whose stories have not been told.”

Just published, the book will soon be available at Turning Pages on Franklin Street.