An African American Woman's Life on the American Frontier
The Story of Stagecoach Mary Fields. Written by Robert H. Miller, illustrated by Cheryl Hanna. Morristown NJ: Silver Press, 1995. Ages 7 and up, unpaged.
Robert H. Miller adds yet another well-told tale to his growing repertoire of children's books on the West that includes Reflections of a Black Cowboy, Cowboys, and Buffalo Soldiers. This acclaimed author invites readers of his most recent book to learn about the unusual and exciting life of Mary Fields. In an introductory author's note, Miller informs the reader that Mary was the first African American female to work for the Pony Express delivering mail in the 1860s.
Children of all ages will delight in the adventures of this strong-minded heroine, who spent the first thirty years of her life as a slave. Earth-tone pencil and pastel illustrations help to capture the various settings where Mary lived her life from 1832 to 1914. As a young child, Mary befriended the daughter of the owner of the plantation where her family lived and worked. As a young woman, Mary learned how to read and write and even developed a penchant for smoking cigars. Once freed after the Civil War ended, she moved out West to join her childhood friend, who was now a nun at St. Peter's Mission in Montana. Living the life of a "cowboy," she shot a man during a gun fight and was asked by the bishop to leave St. Peter's Mission.
Mary's next job, Pony Express rider, proved to be one of the most dangerous and exciting. She devoted the eight years following that to delivering the mail through rugged territory in the outlaw-infested Badlands of Montana. Tiring of life on the road and the dangers inherent in travel in all kinds of weather, she then opened a laundry business in Cascade, Montana, where she continued to live a very colorful life. Mary was buried on her 82nd birthday beside a trail to St. Peter's Mission. The end pages of the book provide a map of the likely postal route that Mary took during the late 1800s.
An African American Woman's Memoir of School Desegregation
Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High, Abridged Edition. Melba Pattillo Beals. New York: Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, 1995. Ages 11 and up, 226 pages.
This book is an account of the experiences of Melba Pattillo Beals during the critical first days of school desegregation in America. In 1957, the author became one of a group of nine high school students who were chosen as the first African American students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Readers will be swept into Melba's account of her journey from the very first page. She brings the era to life, and we join her on the front lines of the civil rights movement and school desegregation. Schoolmates, parents, a mob of people, a soldier assigned to protect her, friends and family members-all provide authentic voices that help depict Melba's traumatic steps toward a better future for herself and those who followed her. Through the use of her own memories, her diary, and newspaper headlines, she creates for the reader the sense of both terror and hope that she felt on an almost daily basis.
This is a book that invites readers to step into the time period and connect with the sixteen year old African American girl who was trying to do her best in the face of racism and personal uncertainty. We admire her grit in the face of grim reality. It is also a story told with love and compassion, as Melba recounts the support and love shared by her family. The author not only survived her experiences, but went on to earn a bachelor's degree from San Francisco State University and a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University. She is currently a consultant and the author of several books.
An African American Woman's Advocacy for Children
Marian Wright Edelman: The Making of a Crusader. Beatrice Siegel. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1995. Ages 11 and up, 159 pages.
The life of Marian Wright Edleman, founder and director of the Children's Defense Fund, is sensitively told in this chapter book that explores her formative experiences from childhood, young adulthood, marriage, and parenthood, to her current roles as lawyer, speaker, activist, director, and author.
Marian's life charts a course that is very much a reflection of the political and social currents in the second half of the twentieth century. For example, as a young child living in the segregated South, she learned what it was like to be denied a drink of water from a "whites only" drinking fountain. And yet, she also knew what it was like to belong to a strong, vital community of people who were dedicated to making a better life for themselves, their children, and their community.
At the age of 17, Marian attended Spelman College, a liberal arts college in Atlanta, Georgia. Her horizons were broadened when she studied and traveled abroad at the Sorbonne, the University of Geneva in Switzerland, and in the Soviet Union. These experiences resulted in contacts with people from a variety of races and ideologies. When Marian returned to the South, she discovered she had the spirit to fight the injustices she witnessed as a volunteer for the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "I have seen and felt the suffering of others and gained incentive to alleviate it in my own small way." (p. 39). This was the crowning experience that convinced her to become a lawyer.
The following decades moved swiftly, as Marian joined hand and heart with a variety of people to pursue civil rights and overcome poverty for children. In 1973, she gathered support for a non-profit organization to help the nation's children. Her slogan was the now famous fisherman's prayer, "Dear Lord, Be good to me, The sea is so wide, And my boat is so small." (p.103). This book outlines Marian's important contributions and continuing work in the 90s, as well as her vision for the future.
African American Women's Olympic Medal-winning Experiences.
Olympic Black Women. Written by Martha Ward Plowden, illustrated by Ronald Jones. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 1996. Ages 9 and up, 174 pages.
The author, a media specialist in a middle school in Atlanta, Georgia, was troubled by the difficulty her students had in finding information on black heroes. This lack of available information was the inspiration she needed to research and write two books, Famous Firsts of Black Women and Olympic Black Women. Chapters in the second work provide an encapsulated history of the Olympics from the celebrations of the games in ancient times to modern day events. Readers discover that the first black women allowed to participate in the Olympics were Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes, at Los Angeles in 1932.
Biographical information on black women medalists offers poignant glimpses into personal triumphs and tragedies that will be inspirational to a variety of readers. For example, when three-time gold medal winner Evelyn Ashford was in high school in the early 1970s, she had to join the boys' track team to get training because there was no girls' team. Zina Garrison, who won a bronze medal for singles tennis and a gold medal for doubles tennis in Seoul, Korea, overcame severe bouts of bulimia brought about by the deaths of three of her family members. Madeline Manning, who won a gold medal for the 800 meter run in1968, grew up in an inner city housing project. Raised by her mother, who worked as a domestic, and her stepfather, she suffered spinal meningitis when she was only eleven years old. After she overcame the effects of her illness, her athletic abilities were noticed during junior high school when she participated in the President's Physical Fitness Program.
Many of the women highlighted in this collection showed their prowess and potential in a sports area during their childhood, in high school, or in college. Once discovered, they benefited from the support of an interested teacher or coach. A glossary, a list of Olympic sites, and suggested additional reading provide helpful study aids for readers.
African American Women in the World of Music
Big Star Fallin' Mama: Five Women in Black Music, Revised Edition. Hettie Jones. New York: Viking, Penguin Books, U.S.A., 1995. Ages 10 and up, 147 pages.
When Big Star Fallin' Mama was first published in 1974, Hettie Jones wanted to tell an unsung story about black women's vital contributions to a significant slice of America's musical heritage: the blues. As Jones recounts in the preface to the book, "It is my hope that the revised edition ...will offer to new generations an introduction to the remarkable story of this music and those who play and sing it."
According to the author, the notion of the blues has roots that go all the way back to 16th century England, where it was believed that "blue devils" or spirit beings hovered around people who were feeling sad. Musically, the blues is related to forms of music found in both African and European musical traditions. During the Civil War, the songs of blacks were often messages about meeting places for passage along the underground railroad. The author pays tribute to Mamie Smith as the first black women to make a blues record. Comments such as these provide an insightful background on the blues in American music, and set a correct tone for the book-a collection of biographies of five black women singers told beautifully through prose, lyrics, photographs, and advertising posters.
Readers discover the different styles of singing contributed by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Billie Holiday, and Aretha Franklin. For example, Ma Rainey, a singer at the turn of the century, drew from spirituals, "field hollers", minstrel shows, and roustabout songs. Field hollers were sung by groups of field hands to the tempo of their work in the fields at harvest time. Roustabout songs were sung in synchronised unison by groups of men erecting circus tents. Ma Rainey's songs reflected a preindustrial South that had no radios, no indoor plumbing, and a mere criss-crossing of dirt roads. Each of the women portrayed in this book reflects the historical era in which she lived. All together, they contributed much to our enjoyment of life through the sounds of their voices singing the blues.
About the Author
Linda D. Labbo is an Assistant Professor of Reading Education at The University of Georgia. Her research interests include children's early literacy and the use of multicultural literature in the classroom.