Celebrating a Culture: Black History Month
by Dr. Pamela J. Farris
A compendium of fiction and non-fiction reading resources for observing Black History Month.
Black History Month began as “Negro History Week” in 1929, both to honor the contributions of African Americans and to share the history of their struggles as a cultural group. It was created by Carter G. Woodson, an African American historian, scholar, and educator. In 1976, the two hundredth anniversary of the United States of America was celebrated and Black History Month was officially established. February was selected since both Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln were born in that month and both had done so much to advance the rights of African Americans.
In 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War, the U.S. census reported 4.8 million Black people in the United States. By 2007, there were 40.7 million Black people including those individuals who were of more than one race. From the early struggles of slaves and the abolitionists through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to today, Black history must be presented accurately and with respect. This article will provide suggestions for grades K-12.
Students in grades K-3 should become aware of the Civil Rights Movement and also of the contributions of African Americans. For kindergartners, The Story of Rosa Parks (Pingry, 2007) and The Story of Abraham Lincoln (Pingry, 2007) are simple, inexpensive board books that, once read a few times aloud to students, the students can then retell or even reread depending on their level of emergent literacy.
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (2006) by Carole Weatherford is a picture book that represents the danger and fears that Tubman encountered as she herself first escaped slavery, then helped others to do likewise. The illustrations are dramatic and stark.
The Story of Ruby Bridges (Coles, 1995/2004) is a picture book based on the incredible fortitude of Ruby Bridges. Coles’ book shares the hardships Ruby faced as she attended the desegregated elementary school in New Orleans. So angry were the white parents that they refused to send their children to the school. And so afraid were Black parents that they refused to send their children to school for fear they would be hurt. But day after day Ruby trudged through the mob of people who shouted and yelled at her. Through My Eyes (Bridges, 1999) is Ruby Bridges’s own account which also shares newspaper headlines and other period events of the time.
More biographies have been written about Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., than any other individuals. Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Rappaport, 2002) is a picture book that sets the background for King’s leadership during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. A study of picture books about Lincoln and King can result in a Venn diagram comparing the two individuals.
Freedom on the Menu (Weatherford, 2004) depicts the Greensboro, NC, sit-in at a Woolworths’s dime store where Black people protested so that they could be served along with other customers. A young girl and her mother go shopping and are permitted to purchase a drink from the lunch counter but not to sit there. When the girl asks for an ice cream sundae, her mother tells her that only people who can sit at the counter can have one. Martin Luther King comes to town and holds a quiet protest at the Woolworth’s lunch counter.
Students in the intermediate grades must be exposed to more than the brief history book entry about the significance of slavery. A good read-aloud to present prior to the study of a Civil War unit is the picture book Nettie’s Trip South (Turner, 1995). Based on true events, the story begins as Nettie is sent by her father along with her older brother and sister to tour the South just a few years before the Civil War breaks out. Safe and secure in Albany, NY, young Nettie has no idea of the societal differences until she sees a slave auction where children are taken away from their parents and their siblings.
A good companion picture book for a read-aloud and class discussion is Henry’s Freedom Box (Levine, 2007) which is based on the actual life of Henry Brown, a slave in Virginia. As a boy, Henry was separated from his mother and ended up with a new master and went to work in a factory. Later Henry married another slave and they had three children. Needing money, the slave master sold Henry’s wife and children. Horrified, Henry sought the help of an abolitionist doctor who helped him devise a plan. Henry got a wooden box and mailed himself to freedom, a trip that took 27 hours for the journey from Richmond, VA, to Philadelphia, PA.
Another powerful picture book is Freedom Summer (Wiles, 2001) in which a white boy describes the fun things he enjoys doing with his friend John Henry who is Black. Set in 1964, the book relates how limited society is when the boy and his friend can swim together in a river but not in the town’s pool, nor can his friend enter through the front door of the General Store just to buy nickel ice pops. Teacher-led discussion could focus on why Joe keeps telling John Henry that he’s wrong about the town not wanting colored folks and how two boys’ friendship could survive under segregation.
A companion book would be Goin’ Someplace Special (McKissack, 2001) which describes an African American girl who journeys to the only integrated public facility in her southern town: the town’s library. These books are good discussion starters about social justice for fifth- and sixth-grade students.
Middle-school students are sensitive to what is fair. They naturally seek social justice. Reading and discussing “hate crimes” can enlighten students to the many struggles of African Americans. In particular the study of the story of Emmett Till’s murder and the resultant trial in which the accused were found not guilty is important. In 1954, Till was fourteen. He’d grown up outside of Chicago, IL. In the North, the mores and culture accepted more liberal behavior of African Americans while the South was highly restrictive and segregated. Till was visiting relatives in Mississippi during the summer when he was in a small town store. An attractive lady passed by him, the storekeeper’s wife, and Till supposedly let out a wolf whistle as he flirted with her. During the night, Till was taken from his relatives’ home and beaten, and his dead body was tossed into a nearby river. A few months after the trial, the accused men were interviewed by Look magazine and confessed to the crime. That incident galvanized the African American community creating a common bond among Black people that laid the seeds for the Civil Rights Movement. Chris Crowe has a YA novel based on this story entitled Mississippi Trial (2002) and an award-winning informational book, Getting Away with Murder (2003).
Political science and history are interwoven, and so high-school students must examine how African Americans were treated from a larger perspective. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are heralded as great leaders and founders of the United States, yet both were slave owners. Thomas Jefferson even kept a slave concubine and fathered children with her. It was common knowledge but accepted in much of Southern society that white slave owners sexually abused their female slaves.
High school students can trace the history of African Americans nationally as well as in their own state. Who was the first African American elected to U.S. Congress? Who was the first Black governor, and for which state? Thurgood Marshall was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson as the first African American Supreme Court justice, but his legal career may be best known for serving as a lawyer in the infamous desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka, KS, in 1954 which struck down the policy of “separate but equal.”
Students interested in sports may wish to examine the history of African Americans as coaches. While African American coaches have been accepted in basketball, baseball and football have been slower to hire Black coaches. Frank Robinson had been an outstanding baseball player, winning the MVP award in both the National and American Leagues, first with the Cincinnati Reds and later with the Baltimore Orioles. No one had ever won the MVP Award in both leagues. Highly knowledgeable about baseball, he dearly wanted to manage a major league team. But owners offered him only marginal teams with little talent. Frank Robinson attended high school and played basketball with Bill Russell in Oakland, CA. For Bill Russell, the opportunities were greater as more doors were opened to him as Black coaches were accepted in basketball. After leading the Boston Celtics to a record eleven NBA Championships in thirteen years, Russell went on to coach the Celtics to an additional two more championships. Today, there are more African American coaches at the college and professional level for basketball than for baseball and football. In fact, Craig Robinson is the head basketball coach for Oregon State University. Robinson’s sister is Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States and wife of President Barack Obama. Students can make a list of Black coaches of pro teams in different sports and see what percentage they make up of coaches in each sport.
African Americans and the Arts
African American culture has made significant contributions to the arts, and often had to overcome much prejudice to do so. During the 1920s Richmond, IN, had a recording studio where African American bands could record their songs. This was the height of the jazz age and bands led by young Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and others made their way into Richmond in the early morning hours to record all day and then leave town before dusk. Getting out of town before darkness descended was imperative as Richmond was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold.
One of the all-time great opera singers was Marian Anderson. Well known throughout the world, Anderson was not a familiar name to Americans. She was repeatedly turned down by music schools, some saying, “We don’t take colored!” In 1939, Anderson was to give a concert in Washington, D.C., but the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) forbade it because she was Black. Upon hearing about the refusal, Eleanor Roosevelt, te wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, arranged for Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Over 75,000 people attended the concert, and it was broadcast by radio stations across America. The story is presented in the picture book entitled When Marian Sang (Ryan, 2002) which makes for a good read-aloud and discussion book for all age groups. A recording from the actual concert can be found on the Library of Congress website and played for students.
Noted African American Inventors and Leaders
Numerous African Americans have contributed to science and industry via inventions. These include George Washington Carver, who started out wanting to be an artist but became interested in science and studied at Iowa State University before moving to Tuskegee Institute where he invented hundreds of uses for farm products including peanut butter and oil. Noted educator Booker T. Washington founded the first all-Black private southern college that focused on science and technology. Madame C.J. Walker became the first female African American millionaire for sales of her hair products for African American women. Eli McCoy, an engineer educated in Scotland who moved to Detroit, invented the automatic oiler for trains that was so superior to its competition that train engineers insisted on having the “real McCoy” oiler because it worked so well. McCoy also invented the ironing board, a design that is still used today. Otis Boykin invented electronic control devices used in computers, guided missiles, and heart pacemakers.
Children’s and young adult literature can be used for discussion about social justice and injustice. In addition, it can widen students’ knowledge about the many contributions of African Americans and spur them on to contribute new findings in the sciences and new offerings in the arts.
Educational consultant and author Pamela J. Farris is Distinguished Teaching Professor Emerita of Northern Illinois University and a former elementary teacher. She publishes under the name of P. J. Farris and can be reached at email@example.com.
Children’s/Young Adult Books
Bridges, R. (1999). Through My Eyes. New York: Scholastic.
Coles, R. (1995/2004). The Story of Ruby Bridges (G. Ford, Illus.). New York: Scholastic.
Crowe, C. (2002). Mississippi Trial. New York: Dial.
Crowe, C. (2003). Getting Away with Murder. New York: Dial.
Levine, E. (2007). Henry’s Freedom Box (K. Nelson, Illus.). New York: Scholastic.
McKissack, P. (2001). Goin’ Someplace Special. New York: Atheneum.
Pingry, P. (2007). The Story of Abraham Lincoln (S. Walker, Illus.). New York: Candy Cane.
Pingry, P. (2007). The Story of Rosa Parks (S. Walker, Illus.). New York: Candy Cane.
Rappaport, D. (2002). Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (B. Collier, Illus.). New York: Hyperion.
Ryan, P. M. (2002). When Marian Sang (B. Selznick, Illus.). New York: Scholastic.
Turner, A. (1995). Nettie’s Trip South (R. Himler, Illus.). New York: Aladdin.
Weatherford, C.B. (2004). Freedom on the Menu (J. LaGarrigue, Illus.). New York: Dial.
Weatherford, C.B. (2006). Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (K. Nelson, Illus.). New York: Hyperion.
Wiles, D. (2001). Freedom Summer. New York: Atheneum.
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