Kid Lit Review of “Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School” by Janet Halfmann 

Lilly Ann Eliza Cox was born into slavery around 1821 in Virginia. After losing her mother when she was four, Lilly was sold to a family in Kentucky, where she worked in the master’s house. The author reports:

“When the adults weren’t watching, the master’s children often played school with her. They even found an old ragged blue-back speller for Lilly Ann to use and keep.”

Lilly knew she had to hide her speller as well as the secret practice of her letters she did on her own; slaves were not permitted to have an education. But she loved the worlds that opened up to her from reading, and wanted to share her knowledge with other slaves. On Sundays, when the master’s family was away, she taught other children in her situation to read and write.

After her master died, Lilly Ann was sold again, this time to a planation near Natchez, Mississippi. For the first time, she had to work from sunup to sundown in the cotton fields. She had trouble keeping up with the others, and received daily whippings. Finally the master, possibly concerned about losing his “investment,” took her to work in the plantation kitchen.

Even though it was illegal in Mississippi for slaves to read or write, carrying a penalty of 39 lashes with a whip, Lily saw education as a path to freedom, and continued to teach in secret. For seven years, she took on 12 students at a time. She and her students were finally caught by a slave patrol. To Lily’s surprise, her master said he wouldn’t punish her and she could continue teaching other slaves. She was still teaching when the Civil War broke out.

At the end of the war and with the emancipation of slaves, Lily began teaching large numbers of former slaves eager to learn. The author concludes:

“Lilly Ann Granderson’s inspiration lives on today through all the generations changed forever by her dedication to helping others gain freedom and improve their lives through education.”

In an Afterword, the author gives more background on Lilly, who died in 1889. The author notes that today, Lilly and her midnight school are remembered during Civil War living history events in Natchez. She also observes that Lilly’s descendants continued Lilly’s dedication to education. One of her granddaughters was one of the first two college graduates of Spelman College, and a grandson became the first African American Democrat elected to the Michigan State Senate. Her great-grandson was the first African American to represent Michigan in the US Congress, and was a founder and the first chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. She writes:

“We can only imagine the many achievement Lilly Ann’s students and their families went on to accomplish because of their education – the everlasting legacy of a brave and dedicated teacher.”

A list of references is included.

Illustrator London Ladd’s acrylic paints in a soft palette show realistic scenes marked by expressive faces and historical references.

Evaluation: I can’t even imagine the bravery it took for Granderson to persevere in her mission to help other slaves find a path to growth, happiness, and freedom through education. Readers 7 and up will gain insight into just what a gift it is to have the freedom to learn and better themselves. They will also get a good sense of what slavery was like when people were considered “property” (even without gorier details), such as never knowing when you might be sold, to whom, and what your fate thereafter might be.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Lee & Low Books, 2018

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