My great grandfather finds a way to get an education in spite of the
laws against teaching slaves how to read and write.
My name is Madison Ellis Walker. The “
the title refers to my great grandfather, Madison Ellis Neal. How he
learned to read and write has been passed on down from generation to
generation within my mother’s family. The story takes place on a
time is 1856. If you guessed that
slave, you’d only be half right. His father was the “
the plantation and his mother was owned by
this time in the
had to do whatever slave owners wanted. Although
bondage, the circumstances surrounding his birth afforded him the
opportunity to grow up inside the plantation instead of less-than-ideal
son. His half brother was the legitimate heir to the plantation in
. As they
brother received the benefit of an exceptional home schooling. Since
slaves were forbidden literate skills,
his younger days playing around the tool shed and wood pile on the
brother would make it a point to seek him out and tell him about the
what I learned today,” his half brother would taunt.
know and don’t care to know, boy.” Great grandfather Madison was
just egging him on.
I’m gonna tell you anyway. I learned the word cat.”
shucks, everybody knows the word cat. Here kitty, kitty.” A smile
played lightly around
Brother Madison, I know cat and you don’t, because you’re a slave
and our daddy says you can’t go to home school like I can.”
what? I don’t care about no home school. Besides, I bet you can’t
even spell your lousy new word.” It was
to taunt his half brother.
too,” “Can Not,” “Can too,” “Can Not,” “Can too,”
you get the picture.)
challenge, “I’ll bet you my green cat’s eye marble you can’t
fished out the clear crystal gem out of his pocket and displayed it in
his hand as if it were a perfect jewel.
Half brother took the bait. “Okay, bet. C. A. T. spells cat. You lose!
Now give me that cat’s eye.”
countered, “You got to write it out in the dirt right here.” A
skinny finger pointed to a dusty patch of dirt.
that’s nothing. Give me some room, boy.”
brother picked up a twig and began to scratch out letters on the ground.
“Cccccc, Aaaaaa, Tttttt.” As he drew the letters in the dirt, half
brother slowly spelled the letters out loud.
he finished, he looked up at
smile of triumph. “There it is. C.A.T. now give me the cat’s eye and
admit I know something you don’t know.
grandfather Madison slowly handed over the gleaming marble and mumbled
“You win,” and shuffled off to a quiet spot in the tool shed, away
from prying eyes. Once there, he looked around to make sure no one was
looking as he pulled out a small square of paper and a thin piece of
burnt cork. Another look to insure privacy,
scratched the word C.A.T. in his tiny dictionary. As he put the paper
and cork back under a small keg of nails he muttered to himself: “Yeah
half brother. You jest keep on thinking I don’t know how to read and
write. And may God Bless you too!”
After the Civil War ended
and the “peculiar institution” was laid to rest, Madison Ellis Neal,
armed with the gift of literacy, went on to become a lawyer, minister
and successful land owner in