Help children attain a deeper understanding of the unjust but at times inspiring history of African Americans with these eighteen children’s books.
Every American child should study African American history, regardless of their skin color. No history lesson of the United States would be complete without understanding this complex but often inspiring story.
Below I’ve tried to pull together a sampling of children’s books that highlight major events in African American history. The list begins with stories of slavery and continues with the ongoing strife for African Americans to gain freedom and equality. Some of the topics covered include: the underground railroad, Rosa Parks, the 1960s sit-ins, Brown v. The Board of Education, the suffrage movement, Loving vs. The State of Virginia and the struggle to find equality in the workplace.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the many wonderful children’s books available on African American history. Check your local library or bookstore for more interpretations on this slice of American history.
African American children’s books
This is the little-known story of the rare freedom slaves in New Orleans were granted once a week. Each day New Orleanian salves would work tirelessly – in the fields, in kitchens, taking care of housework. But on Sundays everyone, including slaves, were given a day of rest, free from work. On this free day, slaves in New Orleans were allowed to gather in what became known as Congo Square. Here slaves were free to share their music, customs, and culture. They could speak their African languages, practice their religious beliefs and do African dances. This was a rare opportunity in the New World where most slaves were forbidden to congregate without white supervision.
Years ago, the author of Freedom Over Me acquired a collection of slave-related documents dating from 1820 to the 1860s. One of those documents included an appraisement of an estate – owned by the Fairchilds family – which included the prices of eleven of their slaves. This historical fiction book aims to bring these slaves to life by recognizing them as people with voices and dreams of their own. It assigns ages and job titles to these men and women and surmises a bit of their history.
As the first president of a nation founded on the ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, George Washington, like many other founding fathers, still bought and sold slaves. Master George’s People is the untold story of what it was like to be a slave at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. In addition to general information about living conditions and how Washington’s slaves were treated, this book also shares individual stories of six of the plantation slaves.
This sing-song tale tells the story of the slaves who worked tirelessly to build the United States White House. Although immigrants from Scotland and other countries were hired, as well as free blacks, more labor was needed to erect the massive home. So the government looked to slaves to round out the workforce. While others were paid for their labor, slave’s salaries were given to their owners. This book exposes a story few adults are probably aware of and brings to light the severe inequalities that were still present during our nation’s early years.
This book is a great way to introduce children to the inspiring story of Harriet Tubman. Through pictures and a story that is only slightly scary (at one point Harriet is whipped by her master and hit in the head by another), children can learn how Harriet risked her life many times over. Despite obtaining freedom, Harriet continued to cross the Mason Dixon line to free hundreds of other slaves as well as to spy on the Confederate army during the civil war. Children will learn about our country’s history of slavery as well as be inspired by a remarkable woman.
Rosa Parks is one of the most famous figures in American history. On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa refused to give up her bus seat to a white man and was arrested. What followed was a swelling of support for Rosa and a boycott of buses. Nearly a year later the Supreme Court ruled that segregation on buses is illegal just like it is in schools. The last sentence of this book provides a great summary of the Rosa Parks story: “The integrity, the dignity, the quiet strength of Rosa Parks turned her no into a YES for change.”
It’s the summer of 1955 and a group of African American boys in Charleston’s Upper Westside are eager to play baseball. Their parents raise enough money for them to form a Little League team and the boys call themselves the Cannon Street team. But as soon as their coaches register Cannon Street in the Little League, all the white South Carolina teams pull out, making it impossible for the boys to compete. By default, Cannon Street becomes the state champions of the Little League but are not given permission to play in nationals since they didn’t compete. The team drives to Williamsport, PA where nationals are being played and are cheered on by the crowd who knows their story. This is a true story with a bitter-sweet ending that gets better in the epilogue.
Sit-In tells the tale of four African-American college students who made history by simply sitting at a North Carolinian Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960. Since the south was segregated at the time, no waitress would wait on them. But the friends sat quietly and unassumingly nonetheless. Theirs was a silent protest to make a point. Word quickly spread about the sit-in and the next day more students sat at Woolworths. And after that sit-in, more sprang up across the South. Soon these non-violent sit-ins, as well as other events, culminated in President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
A Sweet Smell of Roses is a fictional tale of what of the Civil Rights Movement might have looked in the eyes of two children. After a night of soft rain, there’s a sweet smell of roses in the air as two sisters sneak out of their home and head to the bridge where everybody waits to march. Dr. King speaks and the crowd moves on, past onlookers who protest against the march. But despite this intended deterrence, more people join the march as hopes rise and everyone continues to walk their “way toward freedom”.
As the name implies, this is a comprehensive book about the landmark case that made desegregation illegal in the United States. The book begins by describing what segregation is and then delves into the people who challenged the law. It then moves into the case itself and the challenge of enforcing the ruling. This is a perfect book for any child who loves to read an in-depth account of history.
Ruby Bridges, a young girl living in New Orleans in 1960, is one of the first African-American children sent to attend a formerly all-white school, William Frantz Elementary. On Ruby’s first day, a large crowd of angry white people gathers outside the elementary school holding signs saying they don’t want black people at their school. They also call Ruby names and some say they want to hurt her. Because of this, the president of the United States orders federal marshals to walk Ruby into school each morning. For months Ruby must walk through the crowd to enter a classroom where she is alone. The white people in the neighborhood would not send their children to school because Ruby is there. Despite the turmoil and solitude, Ruby’s teacher, Miss Hurley, is amazed by how relaxed and comfortable Ruby is each day. Finally, near the end of the school year, two white boys return to school and soon others come back to school as well.
One-hundred-year-old fictional character, Lillian, takes the reader through her family history to show what African Americans had to endure before truly achieving the right to vote. For example, despite the adoption of the 15th amendment in 1870 which gave all men the right to vote, Lillian’s grandfather is asked to pay a poll tax that he can’t afford. Another uncle is told he must answer impossible questions such as – “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?” – before he can vote. And in 1920 when women are finally given the right to vote, Lillian and other family members are chased away by an angry mob as they attempt to cast their votes. Lillian also sees the march from Selma to Montgomery which culminates in President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1965. The path for Lillian to gain the right to vote was long fought and she will not take her ability to vote for granted.
This book tells the story of the landmark case Loving vs. the State of Virginia which made inter-racial marriage legal in the United States. It’s 1958 and Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter, both residents of Central Point, Virginia, decide to get married and begin a family. The only problem is that Richard is caucasian and Mildred is part African-American and part Cherokee. At that time, interracial marriage is unlawful in Virginia. So the couple drives to Washington DC to get married since it is legal there. But the state of Virginia won’t recognize the Loving’s marriage certificate and throws the couple into jail. The couple eventually moves to Washington DC where they can live lawfully but yearn to move back to their hometown. In 1967 the couple brings their case to the Supreme Court where there is a unanimous ruling in favor of the Lovings.
At a time when being both black and a woman could limit what they could do, Dorthy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden were able to pursue careers at NASA. Their deep understanding of mathematics, as well as their persistent and hard work ethic, allowed them to work on epochal space missions such as sending the first man into orbit and the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. This is an inspiring story of four women who beat cultural odds and became integral to many of the highest profile accomplishments at NASA.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive yet approachable African American history book, this is it. Starting with the arrival of slaves in the New World up through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Heart and Soul covers every inch of African Americans’ toil, injustice, and courage. This book tells this complex story in a way children will understand. Kadir Nelson’s wonderful illustrations bring the tale alive.
Pathfinders tells the story of sixteen lesser-known but extraordinary African Americans. In the face of prejudice and sometimes sexism, these black Americans from the 19th and 20th century beat the odds and made their mark on history. From Venture Smith, who bought his freedom; to Sadie Alexander, who contributed to the Civil Rights movement in the United States; to Katherine Johnson, who helped the United States land on the moon. This book is thick and full of information but sidebars, timelines, and photos make it more approachable for older children.
28 Days provides an overview of some of the most important dates in black history. While many well-known historical moments are listed, the book also delves into some lesser-known events and people. Such as Crispus Attucks who on March 5, 177o was among four men who were shot by British troops which began the Boston Massacre and ultimately lead to the Revolutionary War. Or Shirley Chisholm who in 1972 becomes the first black woman to run as a presidential candidate for the Democratic party. While there is a large emphasis on sports, readers will nonetheless receive a high-level overview of major events in black history from the revolutionary war to present day.
This book grew out of a project the author, Vashti Harrison, began during Black History Month. During the month of February, she challenged herself to illustrate an African American woman from history every day and post the finished image to social media with a brief summary of the woman’s accomplishments. The end result is this book that includes the mini-biographies of scientists, politicians, doctors, painters, sculptors, and dancers – all black women who made a mark on history.
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