Today is the release day of Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School, a picture book about the little-known story of Lilly Ann Granderson, an African-American teacher who risked her life to teach others during slavery. To celebrate, we interviewed author Janet Halfmann to find out more about the story behind Midnight Teacher.
Many of us have not heard of Lilly Ann Granderson’s story. How did you find out about her legacy? What inspired you to write about Lilly Ann Granderson?
I learned about it in bits and pieces. I have long been interested in early black educators, partly because so many books about teachers in the early schools for African Americans are about white teachers from the North. I wanted to shine the spotlight on an amazing early black teacher. The first mentions I found about Lilly Ann Granderson were under the name Milla Granson, the name used by a northern abolitionist who met this teacher and wrote about it in her book. Once I started researching, I learned that Lilly Ann Granderson was known as the Midnight Teacher because she held her secret classes from midnight until two in the morning. That fact made the story all the more intriguing to me, and I thought it would be for kids too. All accounts I found about this teacher ended shortly after the Civil War, so I am honored to have had the opportunity to flesh out Lilly Ann Granderson’s amazing and inspiring story and share it with the world.
Tell us about your research process. What challenges, if any, did you face when researching?
One problem was that only in recent years have historians determined that Milla Granson was actually Lilly Ann Granderson. To track down information on Lilly Ann, I googled every name under which she was known, and checked out every single entry that I found. I also used ancestry sites to find out about her family and her children’s families, and contacted historians to help find primary sources. One night as I was googling, I learned that Congressman Charles C. Diggs, Jr., was Lilly Ann’s great-grandson, and I felt like I had struck gold. Once I knew that, I started looking for Congressman Diggs’ children in hopes that I might talk with them. That led to a visit with Lilly Ann’s great-granddaughter and great-great grandson. While they couldn’t add any details about her life, they had a family obituary of Lilly Ann’s daughter that provided other leads that I followed up, such as Lilly Ann’s ties to Natchez Seminary, now Jackson State University.
Is there a fact about Lilly Ann Granderson that you didn’t get to put in the book?
In my research, I discovered Lilly Ann’s will, which I found fascinating. While Lilly Ann didn’t have much, she willed all that she had to her family, including six hens, one rooster, and a dollar each to two grandchildren, and her sewing machine to another. The will also listed the address of the house she owned after freedom, and I visited this street during a trip to Natchez. Standing on the street where her house once stood made me feel closer to Lilly Ann and filled me with awe.
Midnight Teacher is set in a time where it was illegal for enslaved people to learn to read and write. Despite this obstacle, Lilly Ann Granderson risked her life to share her knowledge with others. What can readers learn from Lilly Ann Granderson’s resilience and persistence?
I hope that this book inspires readers to fight for what they know is right, just like Lilly Ann Granderson did. I also hope it makes them realize how much the actions of just one person can help and inspire so many others for generations. Readers will realize what a gift it is to be able to attend school and learn and they’ll be inspired to research other untold stories. There are so many more to be found.
Janet Halfmann is the author of more than forty books for children, including several nonfiction and natural science titles. When she’s not writing, Halfmann enjoys working in the garden, exploring nature, visiting new places, especially wildlife areas and living-history museums, and watching movies. Halfmann lives with her husband in South Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Visit Janet Halfmann on the web at janethalfmann.com.