Lessons Learned from Black History: Particularly Pertinent to Present Times

posted on February 8, 2017 by Eve Panzer

Once again, I feel compelled to focus on diversity in my blog and book reviews. The news is dominated by stories of discrimination of people by their country of origin and/or religion brought on by an executive order. When the leader of our country shows disrespect to fellow human beings, it is our duty as educators and librarians to combat this. Picture books are a powerful way to bring home the message of inclusiveness and equality for all age groups. The text of each book is short and to the point and the pictures convey the message in an even deeper way.

I think that given that February is Black History Month, it is appropriate to reflect on our country’s treatment of African Americans to teach the concepts of acceptance and to embrace diversity. (Despite the fact that at this time the bulk of the people being affected by the executive order ban are mostly Muslim.)

Hopefully, looking at the history of unjust treatment of  African Americans in the U.S., which continues to this day, will inspire and guide us and our students to take a more enlightened path at this crossroads in our journey as a nation.


I lived in New Orleans in 1960 and was just entering public school. There was one African-American girl in my class and I befriended her, having been raised in a family where the color of one’s skin or one’s beliefs did not factor into friendship. I wanted to invite my new friend to play at my house. This raised quite a dilemma for my parents, as our neighbors were not as open-minded as my family. My parents feared that I would be ostracized by the neighborhood kids if they were to see me with an African-American friend. As much as my parents wanted to follow their convictions, they worried that I would no longer be accepted by the neighbors. They believed that this would be extremely detrimental to their five-year-old child. So, ultimately they decided not to let my new friend come to our house to play. I have thought about this incident many times over the years and wonder what I would have done in their place.

There are many excellent books about African Americans to share with children. A good list of  books for ages toddler through 3rd grade is the PBS list called Books that Bring the Black Experience to Life. Another good source of books for elementary through young adult is the Teaching For Change website’s book list called U.S. Black History for Kids.

This week instead of posting a review with my blog post I am sharing a short list of my favorite books* for Black History Month. These books focus on the African American struggle for the right to get an education, have access to book, as well some of the immediate effects of the Civil Rights Bill. In addition, the importance of family and the ways in which African-American children and white children interacted during this time period are addressed.

The Story of Ruby BridgesThe Story of Ruby Bridges – Grades K- 3 This is the true story of a six year old African-American girl caught up in the desegregation of public schools in New Orleans. In 1960 a judge ordered Ruby to attend an all-white public elementary school. Ruby, accompanied by federal officers, had to walk through angry mobs of white people who refused to send their children to the school because Ruby was there. For a while Ruby was the only student in the entire school. At one point, Ruby refused to eat lunch because she feared it would be poisoned. This book was written by Robert Cole, a psychiatrist that worked with Ruby to make sure that she was mentally able to handle this extremely stressful situation. Because of his role in Ruby’s life, Cole is able to give a unique perspective to her story.Through_My_Eyes

Through My Eyes – Ruby Bridges – Grade 4-7. This book was written by Ruby Bridge’s herself and is aimed at slightly older children. She distinguishes between what she remembers herself and what she learned about later in her life. The book contains real photographs and articles from newspapers. The book also gives information about Ruby Bridges’ role in the Civil Rights movement.Goin' Someplace Special

Goin’ Someplace SpecialGrades 3-5. This is a story is based on the African- American author’s personal experiences. The main character is a young girl taking her first bus ride on her own. Throughout the story, the reader is not told what the destination is, except that it is “….somewhere special”.  As she rides through the town she sees a park, a restaurant, a hotel, a park, etc. – all places affected by the Jim Crow laws. However, there is one place she can go where everyone is welcome – t he public library! This is a story about a public library that was actually integrated in the 1950’s – not the norm for the times – This story is near and dear to my heart as a librarian.

Richard Wright and the Library CardRichard Wright and The Library Card – Grades 2-6. This is another story that has to do with a library and segregation. Richard Wright is the renowned author of Native Son and Black boy. As a young man in the 1920’s, his appetite for reading books was insatiable. However, at that time African Americans were not allowed to check out books from the library. Fortunately, a white friend from work helped young Richard get books from the library. Richard Wright’s extensive reading was clearly the foundation for the literary skills he exhibited later in his life.

Freedom Summer – Ages 5-8. Based on true events, this book is set in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. The Civil Rights Act has been passed and in theory, African Americans have equality. This story, featuring a friendship between 2 boys – one white and one African American (the son of the house keeper for the white boy’s family), illustrates that society does not accept these types of changes overnight. Prior to 1964, the public pool is segregated, so the 2 boys swim in the creek. However, they are excited that with new laws in place they will finally be able to swim together in the community pool. Their dreams are dashed when they find out that the pool has been filled with asphalt by those who found a way to keep African Americans out, despite the new laws. This story is very relatable since it is told from the perspective of a young boy, who even though he is white, he tries to see the world through the eyes of his African- American friend.

My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Grades 2-4. This book, written by MLK’s sister, is a story that children can easily relate too. The author describes the capers that she and her brothers participated in while growing up in a multigenerational house hold. However, the story focuses on an incident that occurred early in MLK’s childhood. MLK and his brother often played with white brothers who lived across the street. But one day the white boys announce that they no longer will play with the King children because they are black. This incident is just one of many which influenced MLK’s decision to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement and prompted the young MLK to say, “Mother Dear, one day I’m going to turn this world upside down.”

Light in the DarknessLight in the Darkness: A Story about How Slaves Learned in Secret Grades 1-4. This story illustrates the determination of African Americans to receive an education despite the risk to lives.  A young slave girl, Rosa and her mother give up sleep in order to attend a “pit school” – a hidden hole where literate slaves taught their fellow slaves. The story is told through Rosa’s eyes and convincingly relays the fear of being caught in an illegal act, without being too frightening for the age group the story is intended to target.

The Secret to Freedom
The Secret to Freedom
– Grades 1-5. This is a story about a young slave girl who is separated from both of her parents and eventually her older brother. Despite the devastation of being left without any family, she retains her sense of family which guides her and sustains her through extreme circumstances of her slavery. This young girl exhibits bravery beyond her years. She learns of a way to help runaway slaves find the Underground Railroad by hanging quilts which display patterns encoded with vital information. With courage and commitment she does her part to help some of her people gain their freedom.

*Links to purchase books may result in the Barefoot Librarian receiving a commission (at no additional cost to you). I appreciate your support of my business.

 

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Raves & Praise from educators and readers about Eve Panzer, the Barefoot Librarian:

Faced with the wealth of incredible books available for children, many educators can feel overwhelmed when it comes to choosing titles for the classroom. If you’re a teacher who doesn’t want to resort to the dartboard method, the Barefoot Librarian is your new best friend!

-Audrey Linter, Blogger, Little Pickle Press