Frank Roberson

Dr. Frank Roberson

I live on land that was handed down through seven generations. The property is within a 20-minute backwood’s trek to the plantation on which my forefathers were slaves.

The house now situated on the land of my forefathers is a two-story, multi-column plantation-style house, designed by me and built with my own hands in honor of my paternal ancestors. They were quite industrious about securing land for their children and their children’s children. They were just as driven to instill in the future generations a resilient drive to receive a useful education. An education that more closely matched the educational philosophy of Booker T. Washington.

My enslaved ancestors would steal away from the plantation during the night to visit nearby plantations to deliver letters. These letters were not the ones delivered by the present-day mail carrier. The letters were the alphabet. The slaves would deliver one letter, mark it in the sand by candlelight and quietly utter its sound. The sound of the letters had to be uttered in a very low tone, because voices would carry through the air at night and dogs could pick up the sound and go into an extended phase of violent barking, leading the plantation overseers directly to where the unauthorized and illegal private lessons were taking place.

The reader is, perhaps, wondering how the slaves gained possession of the letters and sounds during a time in the South when it was illegal to teach African-Americans how to write and read.

The slaves were introduced to the letters and sounds by the children of the plantation owners. White children, in a sense, were some of the earliest teachers of black children. The plantation overseers failed to detect that the education of black children was taking place under their relaxed watch. (For a period during this time, it was generally accepted that slaves did not have the cognitive capacity to learn. House slaves also inconspicuously listened in on the daily learning sessions between the Master's wife and their school-age children.)

Amazingly, the slave children were very eager to deliver the letters and sounds; and transferred the nightly tutorials in the science of letters and sounds to fellow slaves on nearby slave plantations. After a while, they were able to string enough letters and sounds together in such a way that the words that they marked on the ground would speak to them (the slaves’ description of their learning experience). One of the highlights, in addition to carrying the letters from plantation to plantation, was gaining enough of letters and sounds to read books, most especially the Bible.

My 93-year-old father was my research partner in all matters concerning family history. We would travel all over the states of South Carolina and Georgia, chasing facts to validate stories that he was told by his grandfather and grandmother (whom he called Papa and Mama).

As a child, he would sit at their feet and mentally record as much information about the ancestors that he could. And on our research-motivated travels, he would release with profound pride all of what he had collected and stored in his brain from those at-the-feet sessions with his grandparents.

The Low Country in South Carolina was his favorite destination. He was in his last days, on his sick bed, asking this question: Boy, when are we going back to the Low Country?

Dr. Frank G. Roberson is the executive director of Horse Creek Academy Charter School.