Every year there is a meme for lists of nonfiction picture books called the 10 for 10. I don’t always remember to participate, but I am thrilled that I managed to get my act together this year. I started thinking about my list when I was deep in the throws of Multicultural Children’s Book Day and also finding some really wonderful books about strong women. So for my contribution this year, I give you 10 picture books about important aspects in African American History and one book that is less picture book and more a great listing of important people and moments in Black History.
Thank you to Cathy Mere from Reflect and Refine, Mandy Robek of Enjoy and Embrace Learning and Julie Balen of Write at the Edge for hosting this meme. Click here to read all of the top ten lists shared.
Every February we are reminded that it is Black History month. Author Charles R. Smith, Jr. admits that he has a love-hate relationship with Black History Month and I can see his point. Why? Because school children hear the same few stories over and over again and don’t really learn anything. In 28 Days, we are shown 28 subjects in chronological order from Crispus Attucks in 1776 through Barack Obama. This masterpiece brings Black History month to life.
An Apple for Harriet Tubman brings to life what it was like to be a slave, to work endlessly but never taste the fruits of your labor in a way that children can understand. To continuously fear being whipped, to fear that you would be sold and separated from your family. It also teaches of the miracles that Harriet Tubman and those working on the Underground Railroad achieved.
The stories that people tell of escaping from slavery through the Underground Railroad are amazing, but learning of Henry’s story in Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad was astonishing. As a slave, his life was difficult, but with his family around him he made it through. When his wife and children were sold to different owners, however, he could no longer take his life. A few weeks later, he devised a plan along with help from others to literally ship himself to freedom. His story became famous and is a very interesting perspective for children to read.
Every year there is apparently a celebration of freedom that I had never heard of. According to author Floyd Cooper in Juneteenth for Mazie, every June 19th “Juneteenth commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of African-American citizens throughout the entire United States.” This sweet story is told as a father reminds young Mazie of the important time when her great-great-great-grandfather crossed into liberty. It reminds all children of the hardships that African-Americans faced in this country, the struggles that they continued to deal with after earning their freedom, and just how far they have come.
When we think about the fight to end segregation in schools, we usually think about Brown vs the Board of Education in 1954. But in The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial, we learn the story of how Sarah Roberts and her family started that fight back in 1847 in Boston. Her family knew that the Otis School was for white students only, but it was also tremendously closer than the closest school for African-Americans and far superior. She went to the Otis school without a problem until the school board realized and a policeman came and escorted her out. Her parents fought the rule of school segregation, led by a law team of Robert Morris and Charles Sumner, an African-American and a white man who “despised the way his country treated African Americans.” They lost, but they started a spark. Sarah’s father got people to sign petitions that said that all children should be able to attend their neighborhood schools and the people of Boston agreed. In 1855, Boston became the first major American city to integrate its schools. This outstanding book showed how the fight had to continue through the Civil War, the KKK, Jim Crow laws and finally with Linda Brown and her family taking the case to the Supreme Court but this time winning. A very powerful and moving book.
Education plays a common theme in books about the African American experience. In With Books & Bricks: How Booker T. Washington Built a School, we see the amazing story of how Booker T. Washington created what is now Tuskeegee University. As a child, Booker T. Washington got a glimpse of a schoolhouse while a slave and felt a magical pull. When slavery ended, Washington wanted to learn to read more than anything else, and while he did learn, he still had to work back-breaking hours in salt and coal mines. When he heard of a school in Virginia that actually taught Black students, he saved money to find his way there. After getting his own education, he became a teacher himself. He got a job in Tuskegee, but there was no building. He slowly built a school, brick by brick. Amazing perseverance and determination.
We can all learn an invaluable lesson from young Ruby Bridges as eloquently described in The Story of Ruby Bridges. In 1960 she was the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in New Orleans. Every day, she was ushered into school with Federal Marshalls because the local police didn’t want to help her and there were large crowds of angry white people telling her that she didn’t belong. She learned to read and write in a classroom all by herself for, out of protest, none of the white children were sent to school. Each day, before and after school, she prayed for the people around her, not for herself, “because even if they say those bad things, they don’t know what they’re doing.” Ruby Bridges showed true bravery and this is a wonderful tribute to her.
We take for granted that we can drive across the country and find the amenities we need just off the road. We even have signs telling us what food, gas, and lodging awaits us at the next off-ramp. But for African-Americans, that was definitely not always the case. Ruth and the Green Book tells us of young Ruth who was leaving Chicago for the first time to drive to her grandmother’s in Alabama. Along the way, they struggled to find bathrooms and hotels that would give them the time of day. In Tennessee, a friend gave them a warning about Jim Crow laws and struggles as they went further south and told them to look out for Esso gas stations. At the first Esso they found they were told about the Negro Motorist Green Book which listed places that black people would be welcome and it changed the rest of their travels. A wonderful lesson about a trying time in American history and the power of a group of people to band together, support each other, and make the best of it. The book also has a wonderful page of the history of the Green Book in the back.
A look at Black History would be incomplete without a look at jazz music. One of the jazz greats was Duke Ellington. This colorful book by Andrea Davis Pinkney tells of Ellington’s early years and how ragtime music brought him back to playing the piano. He became a legend in the musical world. With great illustrations and lyrical text, this book tries to bring jazz to the reader.
Hey Charleston! The True Story of the Jenkins Orphanage Band brings us the history of the Charleston along with the wonderful story of Reverend Daniel Joseph Jenkins. Reverend Jenkins inadvertently set up an orphanage for young boys in 1891. To drown out the colorful words coming from the prison next door, Jenkins had the boys singing. That gave him the idea to teach the boys how to play musical instruments along with their regular school lessons. Before long, the Jenkins Orphanage Band was playing music with a rhythm and style known as rag and some of the boys would lead the band by doing a dance inspired by their Geechee heritage. When they went to play in New York City, people didn’t know the name of the band and would instead yell out, “Hey, Charleston! Give us some rag!” People would dance along with the leaders in what would become the Charleston. This was a fascinating book about an important part of musical and cultural history not to be missed!
Baseball is America’s sport. Willie and the All-Stars gives voice to the time before Jackie Robinson, a time when African-Americans were not allowed to play on the white teams. Back then, there was the Negro League where exceptionally talented Black men could play baseball. The story is a wake-up call for young Willie who loves baseball, but doesn’t even realize that there is a Negro League. He dreams of being a baseball player and the Major League is where the “real” players play. But Ol’ Ezra teaches him that “being a Major League ballplayer is about a lot more than how good a fella is. It’s also about the color of his skin. And yours is the wrong color.” The Negro Leauge is an important part of baseball history, just as the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League is. This is a marvelous book for baseball fans and historians alike, although I think it would have also been great to mention the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.