Kids + Teens

7 Heroic Trail Blazers in Black History

For me, an African American woman, Black History Month will always be a time of reflection and inspiration—one that sparks a deep sense of gratitude for the men and women who fought against bigotry and injustice in order to pave the way for future generations. During this historic month, it is important to educate ourselves on the rich history of African Americans—and not just for the next 28 days, but always.

In honor of Black History Month, listed below are a few African American crusaders featured in some of Chronicle Books’ beloved titles. I encourage you to read about these heroic figures and become familiar with their stories so that we may continue to celebrate the lives of those whose actions and words had such a profound impact on our nation.

 

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth

Featured in Bad Girls Throughout History by Ann Shen

Activist Sojourner Truth (ca. 1797–1883) was born Isabella Baumfree into a family of slaves in New York. She escaped to freedom with her infant daughter a year before the state abolished slavery in 1827, and she became the first African-American woman to win a case against a white man when she sued her former master for selling her five-year-old son. She became a Methodist and adopted the name “Sojourner Truth,” seeing it as a mission statement for her life. The illiterate former slave toured the country, speaking passionately for the political equality of women and the abolition of slavery, including at the 1850 first National Women’s Rights Convention and in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, where she delivered her famous “Ain’t I a woman?” speech. Her views were revolutionary even for her time, and she became a national figure for civil rights before the Civil War even began.

Truth used her influence to help recruit black troops for the Union Army and to work steadily for desegregation immediately after the Emancipation Proclamation, even attempting to ride a whites-only streetcar in Washington in 1865. She was a fervent advocate for the equality of the sexes and was turned away from the polls in 1872 for attempting to vote in the presidential election. Truth passed away in her own home at the age of seventy-six, almost forty years before women would finally be given the vote. More than three thousand people attended her funeral. She left a legacy of defying expectations and gave a voice to the most overlooked populations by representing slaves as a female and women as an African-American.

 

Wilma Rudolph

Wilma

Featured in The Quickest Kid in Clarksville by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Frank Morrison

In 1960, African America sprinter Wilma Rudolph was the fastest woman in the world. Her success was even more impressive because of the difficulties she overcame growing up—she was one of twenty-two children, and her family did not have much money, and she grew up in Clarksville, Tennessee, a segregated town. Wilma was often ill as a child and wore a leg brace after she was diagnosed with polio. Doctors didn’t think she would ever walk without it, but she exercised and worked for years until her leg was strong.

At the Summer Olympic Games in Rome, Italy, she became the first woman form the United States to win three gold medals at the same Olympics. Her wins in the 100 meters, 200 meters, and 4×100 relay (with Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams, and Barbara Jones) made her a household name. She met President John F. Kennedy and received awards including: The Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year (1960, 1961); The James E. Sullivan Award, which honors character, leadership, and sportsmanship; and induction into the U.S. National Track and Field Hall of Fame and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.

After Wilma’s victories, her hometown Clarksville wanted to honor her with a parade and banquet, but she said she would not attend unless the events were integrated and open to everyone. The organizers agreed, and Wilma’s celebrations were the first major events for blacks and whites in Clarksville history.

 

Maya Angelou

 

Maya Angelou

Featured in Bad Girls Throughout History by Ann Shen

Many consider Maya Angelou (1928–2014) a U.S. national treasure. A writer, activist, filmmaker, actor, and lecturer well into her eighties, Angelou transcended her humble upbringing in deeply racist Arkansas to create a vast body of work that helped to change the landscape of American culture. After a traumatic childhood event that she would later chronicle in her game-changing memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou became extraordinarily gifted in arts and literature and earned a scholarship to a San Francisco high school. As a teen, she became the first African-American female cable car conductor in San Francisco. She became a mom at sixteen and married a Greek aspiring musician, flouting the existing laws forbidding interracial marriage. Angelou studied dance with legendary choreographer Alvin Ailey and became a staple on the calypso music and dance scene as a performer. She also toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. After meeting novelist John Oliver Killens in 1959, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild and published her first written work. She became a civil rights activist and worked alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Angelou would go on to write thirty-six books, earning the honor of both being on the banned books list and holding the record for the longest-running nonfiction book on The New York Times’ bestseller list.

In addition to roles in producing, writing, and directing film and television, Angelou became the first African-American woman to pen a screenplay that was actually made into a film, the Pulitzer Prize–nominated Georgia, Georgia. She won three Grammys for her spoken word albums, served on two presidential committees, and became the first female poet to compose and recite a poem for a presidential inauguration (President  Bill Clinton’s in 1993). Showered with accolades at the end of her life, Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama in 2010. Angelou was fittingly recognized in her lifetime for her work that opened America’s hearts and minds.

 

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver

Featured in Extraordinary People by Michael Hearst, illustrated by Aaron Scamihorn

Perhaps you already know that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter. But did you know that he also came up with more than three hundred other uses for peanuts? Not to mention hundreds of uses for sweet potatoes, pecans, and soybeans. To name just a few: shoe polish, meat tenderizer, instant coffee, milk, glue, mayonnaise, shampoo, fabric dyes, wallboard, candies, and wood fillers. And some more: insulating boards, molasses feed, starch, printing ink, synthetic rubber, talcum powder, shaving cream, paper, fuel briquettes, and even chili sauce.

Carver was born into slavery, but his thirst for knowledge was insatiable, and he excelled in his studies. With the conclusion of the Civil War and the end of slavery, he was able to attend a series of schools and receive a high school diploma. Despite much racial discrimination, Carver became the first black student to attend Iowa State, where he ultimately received a master’s degree. He went on to become a world-renowned agricultural scientist. After Carver graduated, the Tuskegee Institute invited him to head its Agriculture Department. He taught there for forty-seven years, during which time he became a household name, thanks to his numerous inventions and advancements to farming, which included techniques to improve soils and the advocating of crop rotation. He was praised by such luminaries as Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt. Today, a statue of George Washington Carver stands in his birthplace of Diamond, Missouri. It was the first national monument dedicated to an African American, and the first to be dedicated to someone other than a president.

 

Madam C. J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker

Featured in Bad Girls Throughout History by Ann Shen

The first child in her family born into freedom, Madam C. J. Walker (1867–1919) overcame being orphaned and widowed before the age of twenty to become America’s first female self-made millionaire. Her success is even more extraordinary given that it occurred in the face of the worst Jim Crow laws of the time. As a single mother, she worked for $1.50 a day as a laundress and cook so she could send her daughter to school. Lacking access to regular bathing facilities, she started losing a great deal of hair. At the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, she met a woman, Annie Malone, who was selling cosmetic products for African-Americans. Among the products was “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower.” Madam Walker quickly became a client, and then a sales agent for Malone. A year later she relocated to Denver for family and started her own namesake hair product line.

There’s debate as to whether Annie Malone or Madam Walker was the first to cross the millionaire line, but there is no arguing that Walker had the advantage of being a marketing genius. She sold “The Walker System” of hair products and with them, the image of a new lifestyle and hair culture. For example, she used black women in the before-and-after photos for her product—prior to her ads, the after photos would show a white woman. Within five years, she expanded her company to include over three thousand sales agents, and her detailed training pamphlets taught them skills to develop a refined personal image. At her business conventions, she gave awards to not only the top sellers but also the saleswomen who gave the most to charity. She became the first large employer of African-American women and was a generous philanthropist during her life and after—she left two-thirds of future net profits of her estate to charity.

 

Bessie Coleman

BessieColeman

Featured in Extraordinary People by Michael Hearst, illustrated by Aaron Scamihorn

Bessie Coleman loved to read about World War I airplane pilots. She, too, wanted to fly. Unfortunately, getting a pilot’s license was not so easy for a woman in 1918, especially an African American woman. Flying schools in the United States denied her entry; however, Coleman had heard that women could learn to fly in France. So she did exactly what any extraordinary African American woman in the early 20th century would have done: She learned French and moved to Paris! It took her seven months of training, mostly in clunky biplanes. In fact, she witnessed a fellow student crash and die, which was a terrible shock. But she persisted, and in 1921, she became the first black woman to receive a pilot’s license.

When Coleman returned to America, she was met by reporters and cheering fans. She became a stunt pilot, barnstorming at numerous air shows specializing in aerial tricks and parachuting. (Incidentally, she would turn down events where African Americans were not allowed.) She was a hero to women and men all over, and became known affectionately as “Queen Bess.”

Unfortunately, Queen Bess took her final flight in 1926, when she was just thirty-four. It was the day before a big air show in Florida, and she was practicing with a recently purchased airplane that was perhaps not mechanically fit. High above the ground, a loose wrench slipped into the control gears, and the plane took a sharp dive. Coleman had not been wearing her seat belt, and was thrown from the plane. She fell 3,500 feet (1.1 kilometres) to her death. And while the ending to this story is quite sad, we should remember Queen Bess for her achievements: her contributions to racial and gender equality, as well as her inspiration in the form of adventure, positive attitude, and determination to succeed.

 

Josephine Baker

Josephine

Featured in Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson and Bad Girls Throughout History by Ann Shen

Black Pearl. Bronze Venus. Creole Goddess. These are just some of the names that showgirl, activist, and spy Josephine Baker (1906–1975) was given in her life. Born into poverty in St. Louis, Baker was on her own at thirteen and danced her way onto the chorus lines of Broadway, quickly followed by the Paris revues. She had a pet cheetah named Chiquita who wore a diamond collar and paraded around the stage during her acts. France loved Josephine Baker, and she became a huge star on the stage and screen. Her influence in Europe was so big that the French government asked her to work as a spy for the Allies during World War II—just by socializing as she did at high-level parties with German, Italian, and Japanese officials. She carried secret notes written  in invisible ink on her music sheets as she freely toured across borders.

When she returned to America for a performance at a New York club, she was enraged by the segregation laws still  in place. She became a civil rights leader and marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., in the March on Washington. She was the only official female speaker that day. After King was assassinated, his widow, Coretta Scott King, asked Baker to lead the movement—but Baker declined, stating that her children were too young to lose their mother. To fulfill her dream of showing the world that people of different ethnicities and religions can live in peace, Baker adopted twelve children from different countries, forming a family she would come to call her “rainbow tribe,” and raised them in her French castle, Château des Milandes.

 

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These are only some of the historic African American heroes featured in Chronicle Books’ titles. I hope you are inspired by their stories and choose to honor these crusaders by continuing to fight for love, respect, and equality for all. If you’d like to read more books that feature diverse characters, check out these titles here.

Camille Geeter

Camille is the Marketing Assistant at Chronicle Books. She lives in the city, loves to explore, and is obsessed with the performing arts. When she’s not trying new DIY deep conditioners, practicing guitar, or stuffing her face with Mexican food, you can find her on the beach or in the middle of a park daydreaming about where she’ll travel to next.

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