Reading life stories and biographies is an important aspect of elementary schooling, yet stories about notable African Americans have typically been limited to only a few people-for example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington Carver, and Harriet Tubman. There are many other successful African Americans who should be included in units on biography as well as discussions not only during Black History Month but throughout the school year. This article can assist teachers in choosing some books that are appropriate.
African American Biographies for Young Children
The Real McCoy: The Life of an African American Inventor
New York: Scholastic, 1993
This book tells the story of Elijah McCoy, a successful African American inventor whose more than 50 patented inventions included the famous automatic oil cup that became standard equipment on most locomotives during the late nineteenth century. As a young child, Elijah was interested in mechanical devices and in learning how things worked. His parents recognized his talent and saved their money to send him to school in Scotland to study mechanical engineering.
McCoy found that being black in America during the 1860s made it impossible for him to get an engineering job, so he accepted a job as a fireman/oilman for the Michigan Central Railroad. He invented the automatic oil cup as a way of making his job more efficient. Later, McCoy left his railroad job to become a full-time inventor.
Even though many tried to imitate his design, McCoy's oil cup became known as the most practical and the best that could be found. As a result, engineers asked for "the real McCoy" when they wanted to make sure they got Elijah McCoy's oil cup. The popular phrase "the real McCoy" entered the language-and is still used today when one wants the genuine article-as the result of the work of this ingenious African American.
McCoy's story could be used in the classroom to motivate elementary students to develop their own creative talents or hobbies. Fostering this creativity and interest could serve as the foundation of a future career, just as it did for Elijah McCoy.
Mae Jemison: Astronaut
Garnet Nelson Jackson
New Jersey: Modern Curriculum Press, 1994
Garnet Jackson tells the story of how Mae Jemison decided to become an astronaut at the age of five. In order to become an astronaut, Mae knew she had to excel in science and mathematics and work extra hard in school. She did just that. Jemison graduated from high school at sixteen and went on to study chemistry and biology at Stanford University on a full scholarship. After completing her program at Stanford, she studied at Cornell University Medical School to become a doctor. However, she never stopped dreaming of one day becoming an astronaut. In 1985, she wrote to NASA to inquire about becoming a part of the space program. She was accepted, and after two years of training, Jemison became the first African American woman to travel in outer space.
This beautifully written story shows young readers that dreams may come true for those who believe in themselves. It supports teachers in encouraging students to do their best in school, and helps students realize the importance of knowledge. It is sure to be a great inspiration to children of all races and genders, for whom Mae Jemison can serve as a powerful role model.
Toni Morrison: Author
Garnet Nelson Jackson
New Jersey: Modern Curriculum Press, 1995
This biography of Toni Morrison tells how the highly acclaimed author turned a hobby and a dream into a successful writing career. Probably America's most highly praised contemporary female writer, Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Beloved in 1988. She then became the first African American woman, and only the second female American, to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1993).
While detailing Morrison's life, this story also addresses realistic issues of divorce and single parenting, which many children have experienced in their own family lives. Teachers may use this book as a springboard to discuss these social issues and their impact on individuals and society.
Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry Tree
New York: Lee & Low Books, 1994
In this emotional story, the author addresses gender biases while telling the story of Zora Neale Hurston's childhood decades ago in Florida. As a child, Zora was pulled in two very different directions. Her father encouraged her to be ladylike, while her mother encouraged her to be herself, go fishing if she enjoyed it, and dream of traveling to far away cities. Because this book addresses Hurston's painful experience of watching her mother become sick and eventually die, it has a serious message. While the tale is a heartbreaking one, it is also inspirational, revealing as it does that Hurston did not allow her strong spirit to be destroyed by the death of her mother. A loving tribute to Zora's mother is the influence she had on instilling in her daughter the ability to dream and aspire to greatness as a writer.
Like Mae Jemison: Astronaut and Toni Morrison: Author, this book emphasizes how persevering with your dreams can help one prevail over the worst of life's circumstances. Many children need to hold on to such a belief in order to do their best in school and in life.
Thurgood Marshall: First African-American Supreme Court Justice
Chicago: Children's Press, 1991
Fascinating details of Thurgood Marshall's life-from his childhood struggles to his appointment as the first African American Supreme Court justice-are provided in this short book by Carol Green. The author pays special attention to one of Marshall's most famous and history-making cases, Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregation in public schools. The photographs used to accompany the text provide a realistic sense of the racial struggles and the social life of America in the 1950s and 1960s. This book also includes an index and a timeline of important events in the life of Justice Marshall.
Dear Benjamin Banneker
Andrea D. Pinkney
San Diego: Gulliver Books, 1994
This outstanding picture book describes the life and times of mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker. Banneker was a self-taught intellectual who became famous for publishing a series of successful almanacs in the late 18th century. While achieving success in diverse careers and avocations, Benjamin also wrote to Thomas Jefferson attacking the institution of slavery. In his letter, Banneker challenged Jefferson to live up to the promise of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" for everyone in America. Jefferson responded to Banneker by agreeing that slavery did hinder black people's abilities and opportunities. This book was awarded the Carter G. Woodson Award for outstanding multicultural non-fiction by NCSS in 1995.
The books reviewed in this article showcase only a few of the many successful and inspirational African Americans who are typically left out of the elementary social studies curriculum in our nation's schools. Including these and other stories of influential African Americans in elementary schooling can help classroom teachers to broaden their students' knowledge and increase their ethnic understanding, and help students to develop their career goals and aspirations.
1. D. Walker-Dalhouse, "Fostering Multicultural Awareness: Books for Young Children," Reading Horizons 33, 1 (1992).
2. R. S. Bishop, "Walk Tall in the World: African American Literature for Today's Children," Journal of Negro Education 59, 4 (1990): 561.
About the Author
Loraine M. Stewart is Assistant Professor in the Department of Education at Wake Forest University. Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She has published articles, presented papers, and conducted numerous workshops on integrating African American children's literature into the elementary curriculum.