Like Martin Luther King, Jr., historian Carter G. Woodson also had a dream: In 1926, he established “Negro History Week,” scheduled to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves, and famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass. By the 1970s, the celebration had evolved into Black History Month, and we continue to remember and honor significant African-American achievement every February.
History books are full of fascinating black characters dating back to the earliest decades of our country’s founding. Some have become household names: Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. DuBois, Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, Douglass, King and many, many more. Others reside in more dimly lit corners of history, known only to their descendants or inquisitive scholars. In recognition of Black History Month, we selected these five worthy stories to share with our Child360 family.
When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, she became the face of ordinary citizens fighting for civil rights. But she was far from the first black woman to protest in this way: nine months earlier, a bold 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin was arrested and jailed for defying a bus driver’s request that she move back to make way for oncoming white passengers. As she was dragged away in handcuffs, Colvin kept repeating, “This is my constitutional right!”
(Her story is told in the anthology Freedom’s Children, featured in our Book Review this month, and also in the biography Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice.)
Colvin was one of four women (Rosa Parks was NOT included) who challenged the segregation law in court; more than a year after Parks’ arrest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Supreme Court decision in Browder v. Gayle successfully overturned bus segregation in Alabama.
Popular lore often claims that Reeves, the first black deputy U.S. marshal in the American West, was the real inspiration for the fictional Lone Ranger.
Born into slavery in Arkansas, Reeves was freed by the thirteenth amendment in 1865. Before long, his fluency in Native languages (acquired during time spent hiding out with local tribes prior to emancipation) led to his recruitment as a deputy marshal, assigned to the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). An excellent marksman and shrewd detective, Reeves claimed to have apprehended 3,000 felons over his career, and shot and killed 14 outlaws in self- defense without once being seriously wounded. Bass Reeves retired in 1907 and died in 1910, having married twice and fathering eleven children.
Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.
Even if you don’t know Davis’s name, you’ve certainly heard of the Tuskegee Airmen, famed WWII black pilots who fought and won two wars: Breaking racial barriers at home while shooting down enemy planes in combat. Davis, the first black Air Force general, was commanding officer of the squadron based in Tuskegee, Alabama, before embarking on a storied military career that lasted nearly four decades. Davis received numerous medals and awards for his service, culminating with his promotion to four-star general (retired) by President Bill Clinton.
When Davis was thirteen, he caught the flying bug at a barnstorming exhibition. Shortly after undergraduate studies, he enlisted the aid of America’s only serving black Congressman to sponsor his application to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. While there, he endured the isolation of racism, yet graduated 35th in his class of 278. After leading his unit–formally called the 99th Pursuit Squadron–to victory in Europe, Davis went on to assignments around the globe and numerous promotions, decorations, and tributes, before and after his retirement in 1970.
Step aside, Amelia Earhart, and make room for Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman, America’s first black female flying sensation. Born into poverty in racist 1890s Texas, Bessie had two “strikes” against being admitted to flight school–being both black AND female. She persevered—traveling to France to train at the Ecole D’Aviation, where she earned the coveted pilot’s license in 1921, (two full years before Earhart was licensed!). Bessie was wildly celebrated upon her return to the United States, and spent the next few years performing thrilling aerial stunts, encouraging African-American interest in aviation, and standing up to racial injustice by refusing to perform where black spectators were barred or segregated from whites.
By the time of Earhart’s record-setting transatlantic flight in 1928, Bessie Coleman had met a tragic end, dying in a 1926 airplane accident. Her exploits inspired the national Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs, which held their first all-black air show in her honor in 1931. Like Earhart, she has been immortalized on a U.S. postage stamp. Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space, writing the afterword in Coleman’s biography Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator, called her an inspiration and “role model to all humanity.” (Fly, Bessie, Fly is an excellent preschool-age book about Coleman featured in our Book Review this month)
George Washington Carver
It’s a name we might vaguely remember from some long-ago American history class, but does anyone really think about George Washington Carver anymore? Well, we should! George’s unique gifts and remarkable achievements have renewed relevance in these times of global food insecurity and increased interest in STEAM education: He was responsible for many pivotal advances in U.S. agriculture, whilst overcoming racial prejudices of that time.
Born into slavery just before the onset of the Civil War, George was raised after emancipation by his former master, who encouraged his intellectual education and interest in the science of agriculture.
Teaching and studying throughout the South, Carver began to understand how the region’s biggest crops–tobacco and cotton–depleted the soil of nutrients, and devised methods of crop rotation with soil-enriching plants like peanuts and sweet potatoes. When farmers complained about foregoing cash harvests for these useless legumes and tubers, Carver developed hundreds of ways to monetize the new harvest—from new food products to industrial materials.
As a result of his inventions, peanut crops became integral to the southern economy after the American cotton industry was devastated by the boll weevil in the 1890s; Carver’s plant-based formulas for synthetic rubber were used during World War I and later by the automotive industry.
**To put an extra-fun twist when sharing these historical heroes with your child, ask him which person he would like to be like when he grows up, and why?! This will serve as a great opportunity to inspire your little learner to dream and share a moment of self-reflection together!