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Telling an Unknown Story | Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School

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{guest post-Janet Halfmann, author of Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School}


It has long bothered me that some individuals, usually white as I am, have dozens of books written about them, while others from minority groups who have accomplished amazing things might not have a single book. So about fifteen years ago, I decided to do my part to tell a minority person’s little-known story. That effort resulted in my book, Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story, published by Lee & Low Books in 2008.

Seven Miles to Freedom

While researching black accomplishments, I read a lot of stories about how enslaved people learned to read even though it was against the law. I wanted to somehow tell that story. That led me to search out early teachers who taught the enslaved at great risk to their lives. One of those people was Milla Granson, who historians later discovered was actually Lilly Ann Granderson. This discovery inspired my book, Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School

Lilly Ann learned to read and write from her master’s children in Kentucky. She shared her knowledge with other enslaved people in a hidden spot in the woods on Sundays when the family was away. Later, she was sold to Mississippi, where teaching others carried a punishment of thirty-nine lashes with a whip. To keep from being found out, Lilly Ann taught in a secluded cabin off a back alley from midnight until two in the morning. Over the years she taught hundreds of enslaved people, and they, in turn, shared their knowledge with others.

Midnight Teacher

Lilly Ann’s story was mainly saved for history because it was included in a book by Laura S. Haviland, a Northern abolitionist who visited Natchez, MS, shortly after it was occupied by the Union army during the Civil War. (So many stories have been lost to history because there was no one to write them down.) Haviland met Lilly Ann and called her by the name Milla Granson. Other aspects of Lilly Ann’s story, under the names Granderson or Grandison, appear in American Missionary Association documents and records of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Midnight Teacher

All of the first accounts I found of Lilly Ann told her story up to only a few years beyond the end of the Civil War. By digging through ancestry records, googling under every possible name for her, and checking out every single hit, one night I discovered that Michigan Senator Charles C. Diggs and his son U.S. Congressman Charles C. Diggs, Jr. were Lilly Ann’s descendants. Since this was about ten years ago, I can’t recall all the specifics of the find, but I remember I was so excited that I could barely sleep that night.

With this information, I was able to track down and meet with some of Lilly Ann’s descendants, who had a family obituary of Lilly Ann’s daughter. This obituary led to other leads, which allowed me to flesh out Lilly Ann’s life.

I feel so honored to have had the opportunity to write the first book sharing Lilly Ann Granderson’s story with the world. I hope that in years to come to her name becomes a household word, as she so richly deserves for the risks she took to improve so many lives for generations.

Janet Halfmann

You can find out more about Midnight Teacher at Lee & Low’s page for the book (includes a Teacher’s Guide)

Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School

My bio:

Janet Halfmann is a multi-award-winning children’s author who strives to make her books come alive for young readers and listeners. Many of her picture books are about animals and nature. She also writes picture book biographies about little-known people of achievement. In addition to Midnight Teacher and Seven Miles to Freedom, recent titles include Grandma Is a Slowpoke; Animal Teachers; Eggs 1, 2, 3: Who Will the Babies Be?, Home in the Cave; Star of the Sea; Good Night, Little Sea Otter; Fur and Feathers; and Little Skink’s Tail. Janet has written forty fiction and nonfiction books for children.

Before becoming a children’s author, Janet was a daily newspaper reporter, children’s magazine managing editor, and a creator of coloring and activity books for Golden Books. She is the mother of four and the grandmother of five. When Janet isn’t writing, she enjoys gardening, exploring nature, visiting living-history museums, and spending time with her family. She grew up on a farm in Michigan and now lives in South Milwaukee, WI. Find out more about Janet and her books at:,


1 thought on “Telling an Unknown Story | Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School

  1. Thanks so much for spotlighting my writing journey for Midnight Teacher. I feel so honored to have had the opportunity to tell the story of this amazing and brave woman!

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