Lessons learned from Grandmother’s pistol
Published 1:15 pm Wednesday, January 31, 2024
By John Nelson
I was about 10 when I first saw a nickel-plated pistol in a bureau drawer in my grandparents home. As I
later learned, it was a Smith & Wesson revolver with a patent date of July 7, 1903, and something of a
milestone in that company’s development of its modern revolver.
Today, the significance of the pistol is not so much its place in handgun history but rather how it fits into
America’s changing notions about firearms and the particular debate over whether teachers should be
armed to protect themselves and their students.
The serial number indicates that it was manufactured around 1904 when my grandmother, Annie Neilson
Little, was finishing her studies at Mississippi’s Industrial Institute and College.
That school with the confusing name had taken root in 1885 on the grounds of the old Columbus Female
Academy. The name came from its dual role of providing liberal arts courses to young women while also
offering job skill training.
It had opened to some acclaim as the country’s first public college for women, and by the time
Grandmother attended, it had evolved into a model institution for training teachers for Mississippi schools.
The name was changed to Mississippi State College for Women in 1920, and to Mississippi University for
Women in 1974.
My talks with Grandmother about her pistol, coupled with some recent research, have taught me
something about the life of a teacher in her day. By the turn of the 20th Century, about 90% of teachers
were female, but women had much less representation in school administration. It was primarily men who
decided that these young female teachers should not be married.
It was common then for a teacher to board with a family in the neighborhood and either walk or ride
horseback to the school where she would not only teach but also be directly involved with the
maintenance of the facility. In the many rural schools of the day, that sometimes included such things as
going out in winter months with older students to cut firewood for the heater.
She told me that she had carried the pistol not only for personal protection while riding alone on county
roads but also to protect her school. A possible threat that she mentioned was that a small school with
just a young woman and a few students inside could be a target for harassment.
A photo from around 1907 shows grandmother standing outside the Tillatoba High School in Yalobusha
County. Tillatoba was a small town in those days, and the photo shows a substantial building building
with Grandmother and another female teacher on either side of a male who was likely Thomas A. Early,
the principal at the time, In a fairly large school with several teachers, a young female would have felt
Her last assignment to the small, one-room school in the Chapeltown community in Panola County would
have been more typical of the day. There she boarded with the Murphree family and rode horseback to
the school which was next to the Wesley Chapel church. It was there during the 1911-12 school term that
she met my grandfather. They were married in 1913, and that ended her teaching career.
There are now many questions that I wish I had asked. Had there been talk at II & C about the dangers
faced by young female teachers in rural schools; were other teachers armed, and were there discussions
at the time about whether they should be?
I haven’t done exhaustive research, but I have spent some time looking for answers to these questions
with little success.
It’s likely that in those days when Mississippi, as well as much of the nation, was still largely a rural
society in which most people grew up around firearms, armed teachers would not have stirred a lot of
I did learn from my internet research that there were examples of gun violence in schools in
Grandmother’s time. These incidents could be classified as “shooting at schools” since they were acts of
passion, jealousy, or revenge that happened to occur in schools or on school grounds.
There were few, if and, examples of what we now call “school shootings.” These incidents of extreme
violence can originate from the human failings already mentioned, but describe a crime in which a person,
or persons, enters a school with the intent of shooting as many people as possible.
Today, the majority of teachers, as well as the general population, oppose arming teachers. The primary
reasons given are the training required and the mishaps that could occur.
It seems that most favor turning school defense over to professional law enforcement officers, but that
approach also has problems. The response time of those coming in from outside can be a factor, and
even having armed guards inside is not without drawbacks. Perpetrators often know who they are, or can
identify them from their actions and eliminate them at the beginning of their rampage.
Beginning back in the 1990’s, Gun-Free School Acts were initiated, and some schools now display signs
declaring the school to be a gun-free zone, But would anyone so depraved as to enter a school
determined to shoot teachers and students be concerned about breaking a gun law?
Other schools have recognized the need to arm some of their teachers and administrators. A sign
outside a Texas school warns that “staff is armed and may use whatever force necessary to protect our
There seems to be no perfect solution to the school shooting malaise, but if Grandmother could tuck a
pistol under her blouse and teach a class while watching the door, there are teachers today who can do