I saw a post somewhere earlier this month that said something to the effect of “if February is the first time your students are hearing about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc. then you’re doing it wrong.” All history should be black history. We should be celebrating the lives and accomplishments of blacks right alongside whites as we study the events themselves rather than focusing on the white players and separating out the black players to be spotlighted briefly during the few short weeks in February. Especially since most of the black figures studied seem to be those who figure into the Civil Rights movement. What about the rest of history?
Well, I can’t claim to be the perfect example by any stretch. Two of the books I’m going to share deal, in fact, with Civil Rights figures. But I think it’s important to at least be aware of the holes in our history programs, our own gaps of knowledge and understanding and try to fill those as best we can. I’d love to hear your recommendations for books featuring lesser-known black historical figures so I can beef up my collection.
Written by: Walter Dean Myers
Illustrated by: Floyd Cooper
Number of Pages: 40
Age Range: 8-12
Frederick Douglass is one of those names I hear all the time and yet if someone asked me I don’t know that I could tell them very much about him. We get a good overview of his life in this book by two revered award-winners. Growing up as a slave he was in a rare position of being owned by a relatively kind family and learned quickly that speaking clearly, reading and writing could make all the difference in a person’s life. He taught himself to read, worked hard, earned the respect of those around him and used all of that to his advantage to escape north where he quickly became a spokesperson for equal rights. His autobiography helped further the cause, giving people an understanding of what slavery was truly like. His courage and his words helped change the nation.
Several of the pages are quite text-heavy, geared toward a slightly older reader. But the story is engaging and easy to follow. And I absolutely love Cooper’s hazy, dream-like illustrations. I always feel as if I’m somehow looking back through the mists of time to actually see the events taking place.
Written by: Carole Boston Weatherford
Illustrated by: Ekua Holmes
Number of Pages: 56
Age Range: 8-12
Fannie Lou Hamer is another name I recognize but actually know very little about. This book covers the bulk of her life, from childhood as a sharecropper in Mississippi to her participation in the Civil Rights Movement and political influence shortly before her death in 1977. She was right in the thick of it all. She fought for her right to vote, was jailed and beaten, ran for Congress, traveled to Africa, marched with Dr.King, started a Freedom Farm and a Head Start program and more. She was a woman who never stopped fighting for what she believed in.
The book is beautifully told in verse, each spread highlighting a phrase, topic or time period from Fannie’s life and accompanied by a gorgeous collage-style illustration. (Check out my Instagram feed for an inside peek.) There’s also fantastic backmatter including an author’s note and detailed timeline along with extensive source notes and suggestions for further reading.
(This book was a John Steptoe New Talent Illustrator Award Winner, Robert F. Sibert Honor Book, and Caldecott Honor Book in 2016.)
Written by: Donna Janell Bowman
Illustrated by: Daniel Minter
Number of Pages: 48
Age Range: 5-9
Finally, I give you one of those lesser-known characters, actually two for the price of one! In 1833 William “Doc” Key was born into slavery in Tennessee. And like Frederick Douglass, he was lucky to be owned by a family who was kind, to the point of educating him alongside their own children. He had a natural way with animals and learned to care for them as easily as he cared for humans. After the Civil War he became a free man and set up a medical practice. He nurtured an old thoroughbred horse who gave birth to a runty pony he named Jim and the two became inseparable.
Jim wasn’t an average horse. After training him to do some tricks to help sell some of his medicines, Doc pushed the training a little further and Jim responded. Soon Jim was counting, spelling, telling time and identifying state flags. The two became famous doing performances at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, for President McKinley, on Broadway and all across the country. He pushed for black rights in the towns, hotels and halls they visited and for animal rights as well (including the country’s first humane societies.) Whenever he was asked the secret to their success and Jim’s training he would reply that with kindness, anything is possible.
The text is a bit lengthy but completely riveting. I think it’s one that would hold the attention of even younger readers despite its length. And the woodcut illustrations are perfect. (Again, check out my Instagram feed for a look at the inside.) A fantastic afterward goes into more details about the pair of unlikely heroes complete with photographs.
I love these kinds of stories! Off-beat, uplifting, completely mesmerizing. A horse that could make change, identify Bible passages and win spelling bees? Truth really is stranger than fiction.