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Ten African American Women Who Dared to Make a Difference

And Not Afraid to Dare profiles ten African American women who are models of accomplishment, dedication, and perseverance.
Included: Suggested classroom activities for use with the book.

And Not Afraid to Dare Book Cover


Author Tonya Bolden introduces ten extraordinary African American women in her new book And Not Afraid to Dare. She writes passionately about the accomplishments of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Toni Morrison, Mae Jemison, Clara Hale, and Leontyne Price. Well-known figures of the past -- including Ida B. Wells and Mary McLeod Bethune -- are also part of the book. Several stories of women largely unknown to juvenile readers are included too.

The women profiled in And Not Afraid to Dare are all models of accomplishment, dedication, and perseverance. They serve as role models for African American girls, for girls everywhere, for all students everywhere.

Even rough and tumble Mary Fields, "a 6-foot, 200 pound, cigar smoking, whiskey drinking, gun-totin' pioneer" known to many in Montana as "Stagecoach Mary," had her sweet side. As Bolden summarizes her life: "Mary Fields lived loud; she lived large. She had some bad habits and some very ugly ways, but she also had a good heart. Most of all she had nerve, spunk, and spirit, which is what it took to survive in the Old West days, especially if you were without any kin or many of your own kind around."
"Here you will find the portraits of ten women who braved prejudice, poverty, illness, family tragedies, and much hard work to be who they wanted to be," writes Bolden in the preface to her book. "In finding and being themselves, they unknowingly and sometimes unwittingly gave a lot to their people and to this nation."

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about each of the ten women profiled in And Not Afraid to Dare is their "ordinary" beginnings. As Bolden writes: "They did not sit bolt upright one day and proclaim, I will make history! But somehow, in their growing up and in their growing older something caught hold of their souls, hearts, and minds. Something said, Do not be afraid to dare."


Among the ten stories Bolden tells is that of Ellen Crafts. Crafts was born a slave in Georgia around 1826. As a child, Ellen endured many hardships. She was often beaten and worked to exhaustion by Mrs. Smith, the wife of Major James C. Smith, who owned Ellen and her mother, Maria. When Ellen was about 11 years old, the Smiths gave her to their 18-year-old daughter, Eliza, as a wedding present.

Later, Ellen would fall in love with another slave, William. But she was hesitant to marry, for any children that she and William might have would be born into slavery. Ellen had vowed never to be responsible for bringing another human being into bondage!

Finally, in 1846, Ellen and William sought their owners' permission to marry. The young couple thought many times of attempting to escape servitude, but they lived in the Deep South, a treacherous 1,000-mile journey to freedom.

The Ccouple, however, had one thing going for them: Ellen's skin was lighter than most other black people's skin. (Indeed, Major Smith was her father -- which accounted for much of the harsh treatment she'd received as a child at the hands of the major's vindictive wife.) Together, Ellen and William hatched a plan. Ellen would pose as a sickly white woman, and William would pose as a slave accompanying his owner to the North for medical treatment.

But for a white woman to be traveling with her male slave was highly unusual, practically unacceptable. So Ellen and William made a slight adjustment to their plans.

Ellen would pose as a man!

William slowly collected items of men's clothing and Ellen cut her long hair short. She became "Mr. Johnson," a slaveowner, and the two were off.

But what if? What if Ellen was required to speak? What if she was asked to sign her name? (As a slave, she had never learned to write.) Bolden tells of those obstacles and the harrowing close calls that Ellen and William encountered every step of their journey north through Savannah, Charlestown, Wilmington, Washington D.C., Baltimore, and finally -- on Christmas Day 1848 -- to freedom in Philadelphia.

Ellen and William would settle briefly on a Pennsylvania farm owned by abolitionists. There they learned to read and to write. But soon they would journey north to Boston, where prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, the founder and editor of the Liberator, arranged for the Crafts to embark on a four-month, 60 town tour. Ellen and William told their story ("one of the most interesting cases of escape of fugitives from American slavery") to hundreds of people, raising awareness and money for the abolitionist cause.

Of course, their story made it back to a newspaper in Macon, Georgia, where many were still wondering whatever happened to Ellen and William Crafts. That, coupled with the fact that President Millard Fillmore has recently signed into law a harsh new Fugitive Slave Law, sent the Crafts into hiding, and eventually to England.

In 1869, the Crafts returned to the United States, and to Georgia -- along with their four children -- to help build a new nation. They had been away for 20 years.

"They had left as hunted runaways," writes Bolden. "They returned as legally free people."


In And Not Afraid to Dare, Bolden tells ten stories, each of which would make a great read-aloud story for Black History Month -- or any time of year.

Some of the stories are more dramatic than others are. But Bolden brings each of these ten women to life, often using uses quotes from the women profiled or from people who knew them well.

Ellen Craft's story, related above, is one of the most dramatic of the lot.

"We then opened the door, and stepped as softly out as 'moonlight upon the water'" William Crafts would later tell as he relived his and Ellen's escape. "[We] tiptoed across the yard into the street. I say tiptoed, because we were like persons near a tottering avalanche, afraid to move, or even breathe freely, for fear the sleeping tyrants should be aroused, and come down upon us with double vengeance, for daring to attempt to escape."
Bolden helps us to feel the conviction of the others who dared through their own words. She quotes Mary McLeod Bethune, who explained the reasons for her unrelenting dedication to educating young black children:
"For I am my mother's daughter, and the drums of Africa still bet in my heart. They will not let me rest while there is a single Negro boy or girl without a chance to prove his worth."


Each story in And Not Afraid to Dare could be read aloud in a single sitting. Creative teachers could use a variety of follow-up activities to motivate students to reflect on the compelling stories or to extend their students' learning beyond the covers of the book. Teachers might
  • Invite each student to use library and Internet resources to explore in more detail the life of one of the women. Students can share new facts and stories that they uncover in their searches.
  • Ask each student to write a brief essay describing which of the ten women in the book most exemplifies the book's title, And Not Afraid to Dare.
  • Students might investigate and write a brief profile of another famous black American whose life was not, but might have been, included in Bolden's book. (Bolden includes brief biographies of 21 more African-American women in the book's prologue. She is also author of a 1996 book, [set ITAL] The Book of African-American Women: 150 Crusaders, Creators, and Uplifters, which includes the stories of well-known and largely unknown black Americans, including the profiles of many former slaves who in the 1930s relived their slavery experiences for interviewers.)
And Not Afraid to Dare, by Tonya Bolden, is available in bookstores nationwide. If you cannot locate a copy of the book, ask your local bookseller to order one for you. The book was published this year by Scholastic Press, a division of Scholastic, Inc., 555 Broadway, New York, NY 10012.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 1998 Education World