How Madison Learned to Read and Write
Summary: My great grandfather finds a way to get an education in spite of the laws against teaching slaves how to read and write.
Hi. My name is Madison Ellis Walker. The “Madison” in 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 plantation in South Boston, Virginia. The time is 1856. If you guessed that Madison was a slave, youd only be half right. His father was the “Massa” of the plantation and his mother was owned by Massa. During this time in the United States, slaves had to do whatever slave owners wanted. Although Madison lived in bondage, the circumstances surrounding his birth afforded him the opportunity to grow up inside the plantation instead of less-than-ideal slave quarters.
Madison was not Massa’s only son. His half brother was the legitimate heir to the plantation in South Boston. As they grew up, Madison’s half brother received the benefit of an exceptional home schooling. Since slaves were forbidden literate skills, Madison spent his younger days playing around the tool shed and wood pile on the plantation grounds.
Each day, Madison’s half brother would make it a point to seek him out and tell him about the day’s lesson.
“Hey Madison, guess what I learned today,” his half brother would taunt.
“Dont know and dont care to know, boy.” Great grandfather Madison was just egging him on.
“Well, Im gonna tell you anyway. I learned the word cat.”
“Cat, shucks, everybody knows the word cat. Here kitty, kitty.” A smile played lightly around Madison’s lips.
“Yeah, Brother Madison, I know cat and you dont, because you’re a slave and our daddy says you cant go to home school like I can.”
“So what? I dont care about no home school. Besides, I bet you cant even spell your lousy new word.” It was Madison’s turn to taunt his half brother.
“Can too,” “Can Not,” “Can too,” “Can Not,” “Can too,” “Can Not,”
(Well, you get the picture.)
Then Madison offers a challenge, “Ill bet you my green cat’s eye marble you cant spell cat.”
He 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.”
“Not so fast,” Madison countered, “You got to write it out in the dirt right here.” A skinny finger pointed to a dusty patch of dirt.
“Aw, that’s nothing. Give me some room, boy.” Madison’s half 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.
When he finished, he looked up at Madison with a 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.
Great 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, Madison 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 South Boston, Virginia.