Book Review: Little School in the Woods by Emily Brewer

This is a special book and is suitable for both elementary and middle school children. I discovered it at a book fair in Winston Salem and talked to the woman who inspired it, Mary Neely Grissom. She is a soft-spoken lady with a heartfelt desire to tell this story.

Julius Neely was born to former slaves. Caroline, his mother, had been owned by three farmers and had given birth to a daughter, Harriet, who had been taken away, bequeathed to another family. Caroline ran away from her third owner and hid in the woods, finally taking refuge at Smith Plantation where the slaves hid and fed her. In the spring she headed for the plantation of her first owner, Mr. Neely. There she met a freed slave named Jonas Gillespie, who hid her from the Smith’s overseer. The Civil War ended soon after, she and Jonas became recognized as a married couple, and they had six children, the last of which was Julius Neely.

Julius was a smart lad, and he recognized early in his life that education was the way to move up in the world. This story is about the school he built for the children and grandchildren of former slaves, hidden away in the woods because education was not supposed to be available to them. Built in 1908, the school education 1,300 students over 40 years.

It’s also the story about Julius’ daughter May, who got a college degree and returned home to teach in the school, and one of the students, May’s niece who just happens to be Mary Neely Grissom. Long years passed before Mary came back to try to find that little school in the woods, and the rest of the tale is about what happened to that school building.

This is a sweet, lovingly described tale, which touches on slavery, oppression and segregation in a non-confrontational way and above all, shows how adversity can turn to hope and how dreams can be realized through integrity and hard work.

How this book was written is serendipitous. Mary Neely and Lynn Parker grew up at the same time but in distinctly segregated communities in North Carolina, but finally met through Lynn’s church in 2000. Mary told Lynn the story of her grandfather and his school, and Lynn in turn introduced Mary to the writer Emily Brewer. Together Mary and Emily collaborated on this book, which is charmingly illustrated by Maggie Shibley, a studio art and English graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

I can’t recommend Little School in the Woods more highly. It is a perfect teaching tool about the educational struggles of the early Jim Crow era in North Carolina and reflects the history of the South.

About the author:

Emily Brewer launched Legacy Storybooks in 2012 in order to help families create narratives that both mine family stories for the meanings that have shaped the family’s identity and crystallize the legacy of loved ones from generations back.

Her background in academic historical research, in journalism, in teaching college writing and literature, and in editing and design all come together in her roles as researcher, storyteller, project manager, and book designer.

Emily has previously worked in Venice, Italy, is learning to play the ukulele, and was once interviewed on Good Morning America after she helped deliver a stranger’s baby while she was waiting for the CW bus on the UNC campus.

She grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, and now lives with her husband and son just outside of Chapel Hill.

The book is available through Amazon:

and has its own website:



8 thoughts on “Book Review: Little School in the Woods by Emily Brewer”

    1. If you want, I can buy you a copy and send it to you. The middle school class I tutor is planning to invite Mary Neely Grissom to talk to them this spring.

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