Kiddosphere: Hidden Figures: Books for Black History Month
While I enjoy reading biographies of famous people in history (currently devouring Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire), I love learning about little-known people who made enormous contributions to society, as well as everyday people living in extraordinary circumstances. Inspired by the book and movie Hidden Figures, here are my favorite books about lesser-known African-American historical figures, as well as books that highlight the everyday experience of African-Americans throughout the ages.
Need a read aloud for Black History Month? Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal should be at the top of your list. Bass Reeves was born into slavery and became one of the first African-American deputies west of the Mississippi River. He was a successful and tough marshal (even had to arrest his son at one point in his career!), bringing many fugitives to justice.
Brick by Brick is an illuminating look at the building of the White House, which included slave labor. Text and illustrations are quietly powerful, making this a strong read aloud for elementary school students.
A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream is a stunning tribute to Janet Collins, the first African-American prima ballerina, through the eyes of a young admirer. Readers wanting to learn about modern day African-American dancers should read our outstanding books on Misty Copeland and Michaela DePrince.
Brown v. Board of Education was the pivotal court case in the school integration movement, but it came in the footsteps of other court challenges, such as the one brought by Sarah Roberts in 1847. The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial introduces readers to Roberts v. the City of Boston, which was the first court case to challenge school segregation, and the first case in which an African American lawyer argued a case in court. For other titles on school integration read The Girl From the Tar Paper School: Barbara Rose Johns and the Advent of the Civil Rights Movement, The Power of One: Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine, and Through My Eyes (by Ruby Bridges).
I’m impatiently waiting for the movie version of Max Brook’s graphic novel, The Harlem Hellfighters. Although created for general adult readers, it’s definitely appropriate for high school students, as long as they understand that sensitive situations and language is present throughout the story. The Harlem Hellfighters (who received their nickname courtesy of the Germans) were the first African-American regiment in World War I and fought six brutal months in the war, one of the longest of any American unit. This is a thrilling, inspiring, and occasionally painful read. If African-American military history is an interest, check out Courage Has No Color, Red-Tail Angels: The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, and The Port Chicago 50 for World War II stories. J. Patrick Lewis’s Harlem Hellfighters is an excellent read for elementary school students.
For many months, the hottest tickets in Washington have been for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Those of us who haven’t been able to make the trip up to DC should definitely read How to Build a Museum: Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is a detailed and intriguing look at the nearly 100 year quest to build a national African-American history museum. Much of the collection came from everyday Americans, who donated cherished historical artifacts.
Ira Aldridge was considered one of the greatest Shakespearean actors in the 19th century. Educated in a New York City school for children of slaves and freedmen, Ira immigrated to England and became a sought-after actor by both audiences and stage companies. He regularly toured Europe, performed for heads of state and was an inspiration for African-American actors in the United States for some time after his death. Ira’s Shakespeare Dream tells his story with remarkable illustrations and storytelling.
African-American churches have been places of refuge and community organization throughout history. Rock of Ages: A Tribute to the Black Church is a poignant tribute to their importance. Also consider Come Sunday, I See the Rhythm of Gospel, and Martin and Mahalia: His Words, Her Song.
African-Americans traveling in the South in the days of Jim Crow relied on the Negro Motorist Green Book (1936-1966), which listed African-American restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues, as well as caucasian establishments that welcomed African-American patrons. Ruth and the Green Book features a young girl and her family traveling from Chicago to Alabama who use the Green Book in order to find rest and nourishment. It’s an honest look at a shameful part of history, but also a vivid look at strong community ties.
Although he never had formal education beyond high school, surgical assistant Vivien Thomas was responsible for pioneering surgical procedures to correct the heart defect known as “blue baby syndrome.” Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas is one of medicine’s astonishing achievements and stories; one not to be missed.
Sarah Breedlove Walker’s life story needs to be made into a movie; until then, you should read Vision of Beauty: The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker. Sarah Breedlove Walker was one of six children in her family, but the first not born into slavery. She was orphaned at seven, married at fourteen, and developed her own hair care business for African American women at thirty-seven, under the name Madam C.J. Walker. She was an ardent philanthropist and activist who mentored and employed thousands of African-American women in her lifetime.
Like quite a few inventions, the Super Soaker was “accidentally” invented. NASA engineer Lonnie Johnson was actually working on a new rocket cooling system when he created the popular water toy! Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions is a fun and charming biography that showcases Johnson’s curiosity and inventiveness from a young age, but is also honest about the challenges he faced as a young student in the late 1960s. For other books on African-American inventors, check out To the Rescue! Garrett Morgan Underground and What Color is My World? The Lost History of African-American Inventors.
Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman is one of my favorite picture book biographies; I once read it to a Boys & Girls Club group, who loved it! When Wilma Rudolph was stricken with polio at the age of four, doctors didn’t believe she would ever walk again, much less win three gold medals at the 1960 Olympics! Rudolph overcame enormous challenges beyond polio, including deep poverty and prejudice, which makes this otherwise joyful story heartrending at times. For other inspiring stories of African-American athletes, consider Nothing but Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson, You Never Heard of Willie Mays?, and Jesse Owens: Fastest Man Alive.
Looking for more program highlights and staff suggestions for children and young adult readers? Make Kiddosphere your source for all the latest on what to read and what to do for kids!
Jennifer Schultz, Youth Services Librarian, Fauquier County Public Library