I am the mother of two black sons, and I am always looking for ways to teach them (and my 3 other kids!) about black history. For the past year I have been getting biographies of African-Americans (and Africans) out of the library to read to my kids. Black history doesn’t have to be constrained to a single month- these pictures books are engaging, have great illustrations and stories, and introduce kids to important figures (women and men!) in our history that are often neglected in class (see all my reasons that multicultural literature is so important!). If you’re a teacher, pick a few to incorporate in your read-aloud list or on your display; they are categorized by theme and noted if they don’t fit the entire K-5 group. Let’s get black history spread throughout the year instead of just focusing on it during February (Black History Month).
Biographies about Famous “Firsts”
Molly, by Golly!: The Legend of Molly Williams, America’s First Female Firefighter by Dianne Ochiltree. In 1818, firefighting volunteers are sick with the flu and cannot extinguish the fire in a house. The cook for the firehouse helps to stop the fire and saves the day!
Fly High! The Story of Bessie Coleman by Louise Borden. the beginning of a life of hard work and dedication that really paid off: Bessie became the first African-American to earn a pilot’s license.
Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie: A Story About Edna Lewis, by Robbin Gourley. Some argue that Edna Lewis was the first African American celebrity chef! Edna was a chef from Virginia who brought Southern Cuisine to New York through her work in several restaurants and her incredible cookbooks. One thing I personally loved about this book were the kid-friendly recipes, and the little food rhymes throughout the book.
Fort Mose: And the Story of the Man Who Built the First Free Black Settlement in Colonial America, by Glennette Tilley Turner. This history book shares how West African-born Francisco Menendez was captured, sold as a slave, escaped and eventually became the founder and leader of Fort Mose, Florida, the first free black community in North America. This is a story that most kids never learn about, and mine were surprised that this happened over 100 years *before* the Civil War!
Biographies about Black Authors and Poets
Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton, by Don Tate. When studying black history, it is not often that children learn about slaves in a way that highlights their talents, intelligence, and humanity. George Moses Horton was a slave who taught himself to read, and wrote poems to protest slavery. He was the first African-American to be published in the South.
Zora!: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, by Dennis Brindell Fradin. While Zora was alive, she did not sell many books, nor did she make a lot of money from her books- but she continued to write, work other jobs, and overcome challenges. This book is for older kids, and I would recommend 4th grade and up.
Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes, by Floyd Cooper. This is a sweet book, great for kids of all ages (even the littles!) to be introduced to one of the US’s most important literary figures.
Biographies of Black Scientists and Inventors
George Washington Carver: From Slave to Scientist, by Janet Benge and A Weed Is a Flower: The Life of George Washington Carver, by Aliki are both great biographies about inventor and brilliant scientist. The first book, by one of my favorites authors-Aliki!- is geared towards younger students, while the book by Janet Benge is for upper elementary or middle schoolers. George Washington Carver is a genius, and his life was amazing- such an important story to be told.
Mae Jemison by Nancy Polette. If you haven’t heard of Mae Jemison, go right now and check out one of her many biographies! Mae Jemison is a super-scientist who began as a chemical engineer, became a medical doctor, was an excellent dancer, a peace corps volunteer, and was a NASA astronaut. Rookie Readers are simple books for early readers, but still present intelligent ad interesting information. There are other more advanced biographies about the amazing Mae Jemison here.
Biographies about Black Musicians
The Other Mozart: The Life of the Famous Chevalier de Saint George by Hugh Brewster. This book tells the story of Joseph Bologne, who came from the West Indies and became one of the most famous men in 18th-century France. He was a talented swordsman, musician, and military commander in the French Revolution, sometimes known as the “Black Mozart.”
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown. Melba Doretta Liston became a jazz virtuoso and talented trombonist, touring the country even as a teenager in the 1940s. This child prodigy overcame discrimination and adversity to showcase her incredible musical talent.
Dizzy by Jonah Winter. When Dizzy Gillespie learned to play the trumpet as a child, he was able to use music to escape from tough times. With his adventurous and fun-loving spirit, he played around the country and invented a new sound: BEBOP.
Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills by Renée Watson. My daughters both especially enjoyed this story of Florence Mills, a daughter of former slaves who could sing like a bird and dance as if she could fly. I loved the introduction to the Harlem Renaissance, and the lively illustrations. The recurring theme was how Florence used her voice and fame to help others and stand up for what is right.
Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa by Andrea Davis Pinkney. The illustrations carry this story of Ella Fitzgerald “The Queen of Scat.” Winning talent showcases all over Harlem, she came from humble beginnings and grew to be a singing sensation: “Ella put scat on the map. When she and Dizzy threw down their skippity-hop-doo-dee-bop, every soul in the place slipped into the jam.”
When the Beat was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill. From Jamaica to the Bronx, this book spans from 1973 to 1986 and introduces kids to DJ Kool Herc, who is credited to inventing hip hop. The vibrant illustrations are perfect for this well-researched story that kids and adults of all ages will enjoy.
Biographies about Black Artists
It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw, by Don Tate. After a life picking cotton as a slave and then a sharecropper in rural Alabama, Bill Traylor moved to the city in his 80s. He taught himself how to draw scenes from both his earlier life, and the city around him, using discarded paper or cardboard. People consider Bill Traylor to be one of the most important self-taught American folk artists. (Learn about a new documentary feature Bill Traylor here).
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, by Jen Bryant. Before reading this book, I had never heard of Horace Pippin. What an inspiration! After getting injured in World War II, he needed to guide his right arm with his left in order to continue make paintings. (Here’s a great lesson on Horace Pippin for K-4 from the National Gallery of Art).
In Her Hands: The Story of Sculptor Augusta Savage by Alan Schroeder. Despite criticism by her father, Augusta Savage follows her dream ad becomes an artist, sculptor, and art instructor during the Harlem Renaissance.
Magic Trash: A Story of Tyree Guyton and His Art, by J. H. Shapiro. Tyree Guyton is an artist who uses trash to make intricate piece of art, changing the face of his Detroit neighborhood. You can actually visit his interactive art park “Heidelberg Project” and view his urban, environmental sculptures.
Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave, by Laban Carrick Hill. The illustrations are really incredible in this story about a slave who also was a talented potter and poet. This type of book helps introduce younger kids to the Civil War Era, and the terrible hardships endured by slaves.
Biographies about Black Politicians, Educators, and Activists
The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton. This is a fabulous new book about a man who was born as a slave, and eventually became a State Representative during Reconstruction. He fought for equality for all:
When every man, woman, and child can feel and know that his, her, and their rights are fully protected by the strong arm of a generous and grateful Republic, then we can all truthfully say say that this beautiful land of ours, over which the Star Spangled Banner so triumphantly waves, is, in truth and in fact, the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, by Carole Boston Weatherford. This book is a very spiritual account of how Harriet Tubman’s determination, bravery, and faith in God allows her to rescue slaves using the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman is such an important figure in black history!
Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington, by Jabari Asim. His dream was to learn to read, and so Booker T. Washington walked 500 miles, struggling to get into a school. This story embodies perseverance, determination, overcoming huge obstacles to get an education that was denied to him as a slave.
Coretta Scott, by Ntokzake Shange. Although the age range is listed as preK- 4th grade, this book is better understood by 3rd grade and above. It is lyrical and poetic, with beautiful images that detail Coretta Scott’s life in the segregated south, up through her working in the Civil Rights Movement beside her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Story of Ruby Bridges, by Robert Coles. Ruby Bridges is known as the first black child attend an all-white elementary school in New Orleans during desegregation. As a 6 year old, she did so with dignity, courage, and determination despite the angry protestors, and being the only child in her classroom. Kids should learn about Ruby Bridges, not just as black history, but as US history.
Two great books that we own about Martin Luther King Jr are Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport (left) and I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King Jr himself. The first book starts with his childhood, and explains about how his childhood shaped the powerful leader he became. The second book is his speech from the March on Washington. Both are enjoyed by my kids and are must-reads to understand black history related to the Civil Rights Movement.
Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured White and Black America by Carole Boston Weatherford starts as a book about a talented photographer, but we soon see how he uses his talent and visibility to expose the ugly racism and segregation surrounding him.
Biographies about Black Business Owners
She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story, by Audrey Vernick. Effa Manley loved baseball: she played the sport, she also fought racial injustice towards black baseball players, and she was a successful coowner of the Newark Eagles, a Negro League team. After fighting to get “her players” into the Baseball Hall of Fame, she actually was the first (and only!) woman ever inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth, and Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson. In the 1930s, Lewis Michaux Sr., started a bookstore in Harlem called “The National Memorial African Bookstore.” Visitors were welcome to come and share their opinions, and ever Malcolm X came to speak his mind!
Biographies of Black Athletes
Who was Jackie Robinson? by Gail Herman. I am Jackie Robinson by Brad Meltzer. Time for Kids: Jackie Robinson, Strong Inside and Out. My kids are really interested in Jackie Robinson and we have read several great biographies about his life. Jackie Robinson was the first black player in Major League Baseball, and really paved the way for equality in baseball and other sports. Kids must learn about how he overcame injustices, as a part of their black history lessons.
Nothing But Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson by Sue Stauffacher. She started playing paddle tennis in Harlem, and kept gaining momentum until she was the first African American ever to compete in and win the Wimbledon Cup. Tennis superstar Venus Williams has said “I have all the opportunities today because of people like Althea. Just trying to follow in her footsteps.”
Salt in His Shoes: Michael Jordan in Pursuit of a Dream by Deloris Jordan. I am from Chicago, and as a teenager celebrated the Bulls various NBA Championships, so I just had to read this book to my kids about our hometown hero, Michael Jordan. I love the lessons on hard work and believing in yourself to make your dreams become a reality.
Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman Paperback, by Kathleen Krull. Inspirational Wilma Rudolph overcame polio to eventually run in the Olympics! She became the first American woman to earn three gold medals in a single Olympic Games!
Have I missed any great biographies that teach black history for kids? Let me know in the comments!