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Books Celebrate Black History Month


Black History Month is the perfect time to explore great books on the topic. Any one of these books -- which run the genre gamut from history to biography to poetry -- would make a worthy read-aloud this month (or any month) in an elementary, middle, or high school class.

Each February, the classroom spotlight shines brightly on the stories and accomplishments of Black Americans past and present. As sure to inspire young readers as they are to shed light on the past, the five titles briefly reviewed below are:

  • The Last Safe House: A Story of the Underground Railroad (Kids Can Press)
  • The Black Stars series, including Black Stars: African American Inventors (John Wiley Publishing)
  • Come All You Brave Soldiers: Blacks in the Revolutionary War (Scholastic Press)
  • I, Too, Sing America: Three Centuries of African American Poetry (Houghton Mifflin Company)
  • Women of Hope: African Americans Who Made a Difference (Scholastic Press)


Safe House Book Cover

The Last Safe House: A Story of the Underground Railroad (Kids Can Press) opens dramatically, with the midnight arrival of Eliza Jackson. The young slave girl has just made her way via the Underground Railroad to the St. Catherines, Ontario, home of the Reid family. But it's a scary rather than a happy moment. Eliza is alone; her brother Ben is missing; and her mother, Leah, was taken along the way by slave catchers.

Wakened from a sound sleep by the commotion, young Johanna Reid isn't quite sure what to make of the dark-skinned invader to her home. But as the stories of Eliza's life as a slave on a southern cotton plantation and her daring escape from her slaveholders come to light, Johanna's respect, then love, builds for her peer.

The Last Safe House is a book on a mission. Author Barbara Greenwood has carefully researched the history of the Underground Railroad. Her brave characters, while fictional, put a very real face on this harrowing moment in history.

The story, cut from the American Girl mold, would make a terrific read-aloud in upper elementary and middle school classrooms. But beside being great read-aloud material, The Last Safe House is a fine teacher resource! Sandwiched among the dramatic vignettes of the story, Greenwood pauses to pepper the book with historical sidebars about the "secret code" language used by those who helped shuttle slaves north to safety; a biographical sketch of Harriet Tubman, known as "Moses" to those along the route; a brief history of storytelling among southern slaves; a scientific explanation for the "swamp ghosts" many slaves encountered along their escape routes; an inside look at some of the methods used to hide slaves from capture; and much, much more. Also included is a map showing a handful of Underground Railroad routes and many other illustrations, including one of a southern plantation and one the Reid's home, all sketched in detail by Heather Collins. Many hands-on activities are included too. Students can make lanterns like the ones hung in safe houses along the Underground Railroad, bake gingerbread cookies like those Eliza baked for her white slaveholders back on the plantation, or make a cornhusk doll like the one Eliza's mother made for her (that -- Shh! -- plays such a pivotal role in the conclusion of the story).

The Last Safe House is a veritable "Underground Railroad" curriculum, just waiting for a skilled teacher to adapt it to classroom use!



Black Stars Book CoverBlack Stars is a new series from John Wiley & Sons Publishing. Jim Haskins, who has written more than ninety books for young readers (including his collaboration with Rosa Parks on her autobiography, Rosa Parks: My Story), serves as general editor for the series. To date, the series includes African American Entrepreneurs and African American Military Heroes, both authored by Haskins; and African American Inventors, written by Otha Richard Sullivan.

The series will soon include African American Women Writers, African American Musicians, and African American Teachers.

Did you know that African Americans were the driving force behind such inventions as the fountain pen, dust pan, clothes dryer, guitar, eggbeater, air conditioner, and ironing board? In African American Inventors, author Otha Richard Sullivan has crafted brief biographies that explore the sources of inspiration for 25 inventors -- some familiar and others unknown -- from backgrounds as diverse as their inventions. Presented in chronological order, readers meet the likes of:

  • Daniel Hale Williams -- who in 1893 became the first physician to perform open heart surgery when he saved the life of a man who'd been stabbed with a knife;
  • George Washington Carver -- who discovered more than 300 uses for peanuts and sweet potatoes, saving countless southern farmers from poverty; and
  • Garrett A. Morgan -- who invented such life-saving inventions as the gas mask (used by many firefighters) and the three-colored traffic light.

Sullivan's bios are bound to motivate students to explore library and Internet resources to learn more about these important men and women, but the stories have great potential for serving an even higher purpose -- for instilling in readers of all backgrounds the importance of discipline, pride, perseverance, and education!



Brave Soldiers Book Cover

But how large a role did blacks actually play in the Revolutionary War? Most American schoolchildren -- indeed, most Americans -- have no clue! The vast majority of books, films, and other resources paint a largely white picture of the American Revolution. But the truth is that the Continental Army included 5,000 black soldiers. Independence from Great Britain would have been lost without them!

Many blacks fought voluntarily in the Revolution in hopes that they might gain their freedom from Great Britain -- and from slavery. Many other blacks fought involuntarily; they were slaves, and slaveholders often sent their slaves to war in place of themselves. Come All You Brave Soliders (Scholastic Press), written by Clinton Cox, tells the story of all those black soldiers and their largely unnoticed contributions to liberty.

Many white Americans, especially in the South where slavery was more predominant, were against the enlistment of black soldiers. But without the agreement of people in the north and south on this issue the war might well be lost. Even George Washington must have had strong feelings on the issue because he (a slaveholder himself, mind you!) agreed to ban blacks from service -- even though the Continental Army was desperate for men. He would reverse that order when the British armies began to enlist black soldiers.

Cox has dug deep into history to uncover the stories of many brave black soldiers. Some -- such as Crispus Attucks, the first to die in America's fight for independence -- are familiar. Others are not. Some stories are sketchy, as Cox tries to piece together snippets of history. Others, such as his telling of the horrible winter at Valley Forge, are detailed and gritty tales that make readers shiver in sympathy. Cox also brings to life the heroics of black participants at the Battle of Saratoga and slave James Armistead's double-cross that brought victory to the Continental Army at Yorktown.

But, in spite of the heroics -- a powerful argument for equality -- slavery continued after the war.

Come All You Brave Soldiers would be an excellent read aloud for fifth grade American History studies, or great independent reading at the middle or high school levels. It offers a rich and full history of the war. You'll find all the familiar characters -- Washington, Cornwallis, Lafayette -- and all the familiar places and events. But, in its inclusion of those whose contributions are seldom recognized, Come All You Brave Soldiers offers a richer -- full-color -- telling of the American Revolution than any other book for young readers does.



Catherine Clinton has gathered a thrilling collection of poems by African American authors. The collection's title, I, Too, Sing America, is borrowed from the title of a well-known Langston Hughes poem.

Two dozen poets sing out, and cry out, in the 36 poems compiled here. And with each poet's work, Clinton provides a brief biography of the poet to help put the work in perspective.

I, Too, Sing I Sing Book CoverAmerica opens with the first poem ever written by an African American -- the 1746 recounting by a slavewoman, Lucy Terry, of a bloody fight in which two white families were ambushed by Indians in a meadow near Deerfield, Massachusetts. [The poem, passed down orally for generations, was first published in Josiah Holland's History of Western Massachusetts (1855)].

The collection closes with "Primer," by Rita Dove, who was the winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for poetry (Thomas and Beulah). In between Terry and Dove are works by Phillis Wheatley, W.E.B. DuBois, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giowanni, Alice Walker, and others. Accompanying each poet's work are luxurious illustrations by Stephen Alcorn that capture all the passion and emotion of the words.

I, Too, Sing America! What a tribute to some of America's great poets, and what a perfect -- and essential -- companion to any black history curriculum.



Women of Hope Book Cover Rounding out Education World's Black History Month collection is another title from Scholastic Press. Women of Hope is a perfect melding of photograph and essay.

The photographs of 12 African American women who have fought injustice are from a series of posters issued by the Bread and Roses Cultural Project of the National Health and Human Service Employees Union (AFL-CIO). Pictured are Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the Delany Sisters, Maya Angelou, Marian Wright Edelman, and eight others "who made a difference."

Accompanying each dramatic black-and-white photo is an essay by Joyce Hansen, author of three Coretta Scott King Honor Books (Which Way Freedom?, The Captive, and I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly). In each essay Hansen shares a little background about the subject and conveys a sense for that woman's contribution to the fight for justice. Among those women was Septima Poinsette Clark, born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1898:

"All her life, Septima Clark was an agent for change. The amazing woman and teacher that Septima became emerged amid the creeks, sandy roads, and poverty of Johns Island, South Carolina."
"At only eighteen years old, she was both principal and teacher in a two-room schoolhouse. There was only one other teacher to help with 132 students."'We had benches without backs, and they knelt on the floor to do their writing, and put the pages on top of the bench'
"Miss Seppie, as the islanders called her, also held adult classes in the evening."

In 1956, Septima Clark would lose the teaching license she'd held for 40 years, along with her pension, because she refused to give up her membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Still, she traveled the South, designing reading and writing courses, training teachers, and helping thousands of people to exercise their right to vote. Writes Hansen:

"She stood up for her rights and was vindicated: In 1982, she received the Order of the Palmetto, which is South Carolina's highest honor for outstanding service to the state."

The strength of these 12 remarkable women shines through in the photographs and essays in Women of Hope, offering hope to any who have a vision and a conviction.

The books briefly reviewed above are available at bookstores everywhere. If you are unable to locate a copy, ask your bookseller to order one for you or contact the publisher directly:

  • The Last Safe House: A Story of the Underground Railroad, written by Barbara Greenwood and illustrated by Heather Collins, is published in hardcover and paperback by Kids Can Press, 85 River Rock Drive, Suite 202, Buffalo, NY.
  • Black Stars: African American Inventors, one entry in the Black Stars series, is written by Otha Richard Sullivan (Jim Haskins, general editor), and published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 605 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10158-0012, (212)850-6011.
  • Come All You Brave Soldiers: Blacks in the Revolutionary War, written by Clinton Cox, and Women of Hope: African Americans Who Made a Difference, by Joyce Hansen, are both published by Scholastic Press. For information, call 1-800-SCHOLASTIC.
  • I, Too, Sing America: Three Centuries of African American Poetry, written by Catherine Clinton and illustrated by Stephen Alcorn, is published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10003.


Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
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Last updated 1/11/2012