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Black History's Pioneering Women

Share Three hundred years ago, Molly Bannaky, a white woman living in Maryland, shocked many of her neighbors by marrying a black man. (Years later, her daughter gave birth to a son, Benjamin Banneker, who went on to become a noted scientist and one of the planners of the city of Washington, D.C.) Forty years ago, Ruby Bridges, a black child living in Louisiana, enraged many of her neighbors by attending an all-white school. Now, two new books tell the stories of their lives -- and of their courage.

Book Cover Image Late in the 17th century, 17-year-old Molly Walsh, an English dairymaid accidentally spilled a bucket of milk and stood trial for stealing it. Because English law forbade putting to death anyone who could read, Molly was spared the usual penalty for her "crime." She was sentenced instead to labor for seven years on a farm in the British colonies.

After serving her sentence, Molly received her freedom, along with "an ox hitched to a cart, a plow, two hoes, a bag of tobacco seeds, a bag of seed corn, clothing, and a gun." She staked a claim to a parcel of land and set out to begin a new life. Molly soon found that she could not run the farm alone, however, so she bought a slave. She vowed "to treat him well and set him free just as soon as her land was cleared."

Eventually, Molly and the slave, whose name was Bannaky, fell in love, got married, and raised four daughters. Their grandson, Benjamin Banneker, was to become a noted scientist and mathematician and one of the planners of the city of Washington, D.C.

Molly Bannaky, written by Alice McGill and illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet, is a simple story of a simple life. No Indian raids or cattle rustling bloody the landscape. No witches burn at the stake. We know that Molly was courageous because the book tells us "that a lone woman should stake land was unheard of," and "Molly had broken colonial law by marrying a black man." Yet there's no talk of courage. Molly is simply a woman doing what she has to do -- doing what she believes in.

Plenty of historical information is tucked into the pages of Molly Bannaky, yet the text is straightforward and easy enough for most students in grade 3 and above. More-detailed information, which teachers or parents can use to provide background, create extension activities, or stimulate discussion, is included in the historical note at the end of the book. In addition, the illustrations are rich and vivid and -- according to the book jacket -- historically correct.

Best of all, Molly Bannaky, the story of an English dairymaid and the grandson of an African king, is true.
  Book Cover Image

Through My Eyes, by Ruby Bridges, is also a true story of the fight for racial equality in the United States. The book, a moving and revealing first-person account of court-ordered school integration, is an excellent classroom resource for introducing elementary youngsters and above to a watershed moment in American history.

In 1954, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court ordered the end of "separate but equal" education. The Court maintained that "in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place." Three years later, fewer than 2 percent of southern schools had integrated, and court-ordered school integration began.

Ruby Bridges entered William Frantz Public School in New Orleans, Louisiana, on November 14, 1960. She was the first black child to attend the school. In fact, that day, she was very nearly the only child to attend. Only four of the school's other 576 students were there.

By December 5, although attendance had risen to 18 -- including some first graders -- Ruby and her teacher remained isolated in a separate classroom. Ruby Bridges had "integrated" William Frantz, but she wasn't allowed to learn or eat or play with other students.

Through My Eyes, the story of Ruby Bridges's first-grade year and of the events preceding and surrounding it, tells of white parents pulling their children out of school, of a protestor carrying a coffin holding a small black doll, of mobs and violence and threatened lynchings. It includes photographs of a cross burning, of young children being walked to school by federal marshals, and of schools surrounded by marshals, police officers, and the national guard.

It also includes heroes, of course -- Mrs. Henry, Ruby's first grade teacher; the Foremans and Gabrielles, who endured threats and taunts for keeping their children in school; U.S. District Judge J. Skelly Wright, who continuously blocked the efforts of the segregationists; and the neighbors who stood guard over the Bridges' house at night.

The book's most moving passages, however, are the ones that reveal the small child in the center of it all.

The light dawned one day when a little white boy refused to play with me. "I can't play with you," the boy said. "My mama said not to because you're a nigger." At that moment, it all made sense to me. I finally realized that everything had happened because I was black. I remember feeling a little stunned. It was all about the color of my skin.

Through My Eyes tells a dramatic story heightened by the matter-of-fact manner in which the author recounts ugly and terrifying events. The photographs in the book are powerful: often frightening, sometimes fascinating, and occasionally hopeful.

The real power of the book, however, is the portrait of school integration from two perspectives. We watch the events through the eyes of a six-year-old child who is largely unaware of their historical significance and see the significance of those events through the same eyes nearly 40 years later.

The books highlighted in this week's Education World BOOKS IN EDUCATION story are available in bookstores everywhere. If you are unable to locate a copy of the book you want, ask your bookseller to order it for you or contact the publisher directly.

  • Molly Bannaky, written by Alice McGill and illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet, is published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10003.
  • Through My Eyes, written by Ruby Bridges, is published by Scholastic Press, 555 Broadway, New York, NY 10012.

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World

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