I was telling a teacher friend my class was researching the work of Bill Traylor. “Who’s that?”, they asked. Black History Month is a great time to explore the true unsung, every day heroes of our great, diverse nation! I’ve complied a list of over 30 pictures books that are inspired from African American heroes (picture book biographies). In writing this post, I long for the day when teachers don’t just celebrate the accomplishments of African Americans once a year, but throughout the year next to our other great Mexican, Asian, Caucasian, Native American inventors, explorers, activists, scientists, and artists. We need to show our students that no matter how you look or where you come from, you can DO or be ANYTHING. Especially thanks to the people before us who broke barriers for us as women, Blacks, Muslims, Asians, and the like!
With this list, I want to expand our knowledge past that of Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Ruby Bridges, and Jackie Robinson. Not because those African Americans aren’t important (because they are of the UTMOST importance), but because we tend to lean on them to teach Black History. It is likely that our students already know about these people (and if they don’t, please inform them of their heroic acts). If we teach our students about the same people, over and over, we are missing out on opening their minds to the true power of others. The people who maybe weren’t as well known, but also struggled, took up the march, persevered, and broke barriers.
(for added engagement for your students, there are YouTube links to a variety of videos, if you cannot use YouTube at your school, run the links through safeshare.tv)
Effa Manely was the first woman to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. She owned the Neward Eagles baseball franchise in the Negro leagues. She was also an activist in the Civil Rights Movement.
YouTube read aloud: She Loved Baseball
Misty Copeland was the first African American women to be a principal dance in the American Ballet Theater.
YouTube clip of an interview with Misty Copeland
Alvin Ailey was an African American choreographer and activist. He founded his own dance company Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York. He is credited for popularizing modern dance and growing the participation of African Americans in theater dancing.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was an American tap dancer and actor. He used his fame to overcome many racial barriers for others.
YouTube read aloud: Rap A Tap Tap
Wilma Rudolph was born premature and had contracted polio as at very young age. This already put her at a disadvantage for athletics. She overcame those obstacles and ran in the 1960 Olympics, which she was named fastest women in the world (at the time).
YouTube read aloud: Wilma Unlimited
Elijah “Pumpsie” Green was the first black player on the Boston Red Sox in 1959.
YouTube bio: Elijah “Pumpsie” Green
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was the first integrated all female band in the United States. They began in the 40’s during the “Big Band Era”, they played swing and jazz around the nation.
YouTube music clip: The International Sweethearts of Rhythm
Ella Fitzgerald was an American jazz singer, also known as the Queen of Jazz.
YouTube read aloud: Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat
YouTube music clip: Ella Fitzgerald
Marian Anderson was an American Opera singer, who was best known for her historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. But that was only the tip of the talent, strength, and struggles.
YouTube clip: Marian Anderson at Lincoln Memorial
Melba Liston was a jazz trombonist, musical arranger, and composer. She was the first woman to play the trombone in big bags during the 40’s-60’s. She was born with the gift of music.
YouTube music clip: Melba Liston
Troy Andrews is an American musician and trombone player from New Orleans. He is a Grammy-Nominated artist. You can hear him playing on the song “Down in the New Orleans” from “Princess and the Frog”.
YouTube clip: Princess and the Frog, Down in the New Orleans
Louis Armstrong was an American trumpeter, composer, and singer. who was one of the most influential jazz figures. He introduced “inventive” trumpet playing and opened the door for solo trumpeting. He broke many racial barriers in music.
YouTube music clip: Louis Armstrong
John Coltrane was a jazz saxophonist and composer. He is known as one of the most significant saxophonists in music history.
YouTube music clip: John Coltrane
Lena Horne was an African American singer, actress, and civil rights activist. She was blacklisted for being an activist and was not allowed in Hollywood, but she continued to sing and act, still making a name for herself.
YouTube clip: Stormy Weather song (from the movie)
Florence Mills was said to be the “Queen of Happiness” because of her stage presence, delicate voice, and beauty. She was a singer who performed on Broadway in the 20’s. She used her spotlight to advocate for African American rights.
YouTube Bio: Florence Mills
Gordon Parks was a photographer who made a name for himself in photojournalism. He was able to tell the stories of black Americans through his photography.
YouTube Bio: Gordon Parks
Bill Traylor was a self taught artist from Alabama. Traylor did not begin to draw until he was in his 80’s. His intention was to document his memories.
YouTube book trailer: Bill Traylor
Horace Pippin was a self taught painter. He was injured during WWI, which hinder his ability to paint. Through much practice, he was about to strengthened his painter arm and continued to capture memories, American historical events, and every day life in his paintings.
YouTube bio: Horace Pippin
David Drake was an American potter who lived in South Carolina. Because he was enslaved, he often signed his work “Dave”. He learned to read and write. He wrote his poems on the side of his pots.
YouTube short bio: Dave the Potter
Ann Cole Lowe was the first African American to become a notable fashion designer. She created designs for high society women. She designed the wedding dress worn by Jackie O when she married JFK.
A collection of Ann Cole Lowe’s Work: Met Museum
George Crum was a chef and the inventor of the potato chip. He eventually opened his own restaurant, “Crum’s Place”, where everyone was treated equally regardless of race or wealth.
YouTube clip: George Crumb
Edna Lewis was an African American chef who cooked with organic foods. She also wrote cook books and specialized in southern cooking.
YouTube clip: The Edna Lewis Story
Coretta Scott King was the wife of Martin Luther King, Jr. She was an author, activist, and civil rights leader.
YouTube interview: Coretta Scott King
Paula Young Shelton was a young child during the Civil Rights Movement and stood up for her rights during those historic years.
YouTube read aloud: Paula Young Shelton reads her own book
Fannie Lou Hamer was a civl rights and voting rights activist. She was a prominent leader during Freedom Summer, a campaign to attempt to register as many black voters as possible in Mississippi, which was a dangerous task.
YouTube Bio/Speech: Fannie Lou Hamer
Audrey Faye Hendricks was just a child during the Civil Rights Movement, but marched anyways.
PBS Interview: Audrey Faye Hendricks
February 1st, 1960, four college men had a “sit-in” at Woolworth’s lunch counter. At the time, only whites were allowed to sit at the counter. These men decided to challenge the segregation and sit at the counter. Blacks around the city sat at counters in protest.
YouTube Clip: Woolworth’s Lunch Counter Protest
Isabella Baumfree, better known as Sojourner Truth, was an abolitionist and a women’s rights activist. She was born into slavery, but escaped. She gave many speeches during a time of unrest.
YouTube Bio: Sojourner Truth
Molly Williams was the first woman firefighter. She was a cook for the fire department and volunteered to help put out fires.
YouTube book trailer: Molly, by Golly!
Bass Reeves was one of the first African American Deputy U.S. Marshals in the 1800’s.
YouTube bio: Bass Reeves
Mae Jemison is the first African American woman to go into space. She worked hard in school and never thought twice about the fact that she was a black woman, which could hinder her ability to go up in space.
YouTube bio: Mae Jemison
Matthew Henson was an explorer who took on the North Pole, an unknown, undiscovered place at the time. It was a dangerous journey, but because of Henson’s voyages background, he was able to succeed in the great exploration.
Stephen Bishop was a world-famous Mammoth Cave explorer. He was enslaved and would guide people through Mammoth Cave. He eventually explored the caves on his own and created a map that added miles to what was known at the time.
YouTube Clip: Mammoth Cave
This book explains the accomplishments of Susan McKinney Steward, George Washington Carver, Ernest Just, Percy Julian, and Shirley Jackson.
YouTube clip: Susan McKinney Steward, the first black doctor
YouTube clip: George Washington Carver, agricultural scientist
YouTube clip: Ernest Just, a marine biologist (start at :40)
YouTube clip: Percy Julian, a chemist
YouTube clip: Shirley Jackson, a nuclear physicist
Benjamin Banneker was known for his work in science, math, and astronomy. This particular book tells the story of how Banneker invented a wooden clock that struck on the hour.
YouTube bio: Benjamin Banneker
Lonnie Johnson is an inventor and engineer. He is best knowns for accidentally inventing the Super Soaker water gun (one of the world’s top 20 best-selling toys ever). He has worked for NASA and the US Military.
YouTube story: Lonnie Johnson’s Inventions
I hope you enjoyed these titles. I would love to add more, if you have any favorite Black History picture books, please leave them in the comments below and I will add them to my list!
If you love picture books as much as I do, head on over to the PICTURE BOOK section of my blog where you can find a picture book for just about any use!
Note: This blog post contains affiliate links for all the picture books listed for easy access.
Disclaimer: Please make sure to pre-watch any video clips to be sure they are appropriate for your students. They have all been approved by me, a teacher, but everyone feels differently on what should and shouldn’t be shown to their students.