Admission: My knowledge of Black history was lacking until about a year ago when I started diving in with my kids. While I recognized some of the names, that was about it. All those years of higher education and still paying off postgraduate student loans… Lots of schooling but not perhaps educated enough to know history. Not Black history. America’s history. Our history.
I knew about the Underground Railroad — remember the Babysitter’s Club book when Dawn finds a station in her house? Yeah, that was my impactful education.
When you look up “Black history” books, you get a hundred books all mixed together, no order, no connections, no timeline. Sadly, they are listed often as books for the month of February – it shouldn’t just be a month but a full part of a study of American history.
How do I get the direction I wanted and needed? Who are the most important Black Americans to know? Why are these people important? Are they before the Civil War or after? Who is connected? I couldn’t find a good history book list and felt I had to figure it out myself and organize my own approach.
History in our house is mostly done through excellent biographical picture books that we read as a whole family – six year old up to thirteen to me. We study and admire the illustrators, reflect back on past books, and compare the stories from different book about the same person. This is my list of some of the most well-known African American people of the 1800s and books that help make their role in the abolition of slavery real and relevant. These four people interacted, lived, and influenced each other. They also show up in these books about each other, so it leads to some natural review with the kids. Just knowing these four important people are a great foundation to this important time period in American history. These are the starting information pegs. Now go add all your Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, and slavery studies.
Learning history requires a general grasp of where events lie in history. Here are the big events; italicized are those that apply to the books listed below. It would help in your readings to print this timeline to have as you read with your kids.
- 1808 – Congress bans further import of slaves from Africa but trade within the south was not prohibited
- 1820 – Missouri Compromise allowed for Missouri to be admitted as a slave state while Maine and all territories North of Missouri’s southern border to be free states
- 1826 – Sojourner Truth escapes to freedom
- 1830s to 1860s – Underground Railroad grows in the influence to free slaves
- 1831 – Nat Turner led a slave revolt in Virginia
- 1838 – Frederick Douglass escapes
- 1849 – Harriet Tubman escapes
- 1850 – Fugitive Slave Act is passed requiring that the government and citizens participate in the capture of escaped slaves
- 1851- Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech
- 1854 – Kansas-Nebraska act allowed all new territories to be slave states leading to bloodshed within the states like the events of Bleeding Kansas
- 1856 – John Brown murders settlers in Kansas in his fight for freeing slaves
- 1857 – Dred Scott v. Sanford decision ruled that no people of African ancestry could claim to be citizens of the United States; ended the decision of the Missouri Compromise as all territories are open to slavery
- 1859 – John Brown and his men raid Harper’s Ferry, Virginia; met with Fredrick Douglass and Harriet Tubman in planning the raid)
- 1860 – Lincoln elected president; US census counts four million slaves in the United States
- 1861 – Civil War Begins and eleven states secede from the Union
- 1861 – Frederick Douglass meets with Abraham Lincoln
- 1863 – Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declares all enslaved people to “forever free” even in the rebellious states
- 1864 – Sojourner Truth meets Lincoln, Harriet Tubman acts as spy, scout, and nurse
- 1865 – Civil War ends. 13th Amendment prohibits slavery. Reconstruction begins.
- 1868 – 14th Amendment granted citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the United States
- 1870 – 15th Amendment grants African American men the right to vote
It does seem questionable to start my list with a white abolitionist, but he was a white man who was willing to die for the cause of ending slavery. He counts. With his daring slavery rescue in Kansas in 1858, his story escalates to his Harper Ferry plan of attacking the national armory and using the weapons to incite a slave rebellion. Despite warnings by Frederick Douglass that Brown would never survive the raid, he still went through with his plan in 1859 and eventually died because of the failed attempt. If Harriet Tubman had joined as he desired, she would have been punished like his other co-conspirators. He remains a controversial person to this day, and his importance is more than just the song saying “John Brown’s body lies amouldering in the grave.”
John Brown: His Fight for Freedom
John Hendrix, author and illustrator
This amazingly illustrated book introduces the controversial John Brown and ties in Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and the Underground Railroad. New-to-us were the well-explained events of Bleeding Kansas after the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act called for the new territories to vote on their slavery status. With the excitement of the exciting raid on Harper’s Ferry, it reads at times like an action book. Robert E. Lee even makes an early career appearance at the arrest. Warning: the book does discuss his death sentence and murders in Kansas so be prepared to discuss!
Check out the other books by John Hendrix with his signature style:
- Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914
- Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek: A Tall, Thin Tale – authored by Deborah Hopkinson
After escaping from slavery in 1838, Frederick Douglass moves north to use his eloquence to speak against slavery starting in the 1830s. With the publication of his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, he combined his anti-slavery talks with the suffragette cause (1848), formed a friendship with Lincoln (1861), and worked with the former slaves in the Union Army. Before dying in 1895, he was able to see the thirteenth amendment abolishing slavery (1865), became a US citizen with the fourteenth amendment (1868), and saw African-Americans gain the right to vote with the fifteenth (1870). He saw the result of all his fighting.
Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History
Walter Dean Myers, ill. Floyd Cooper
With lovely, realistic chalk pastel illustrations, this picture book biography covers his whole life: his childhood, his first job, his marriage, his work as an abolitionist, his time with John Brown, the meeting with Lincoln, the Civil War, and his work with Haiti. This book is pretty lengthy but good. It’s all here.
Bread for Words: A Frederick Douglass Story
Shana Keller, ill. Kayla Stark
This fictionalized picture book about Douglass’ childhood focuses on his dedication to learning to read no matter the cost. His enslavement and the rules against learning to read only challenge him to come up with clever ways to get to his ultimate goal as he knows that reading will bring him freedom. He would rather be hungry for food than hungry for learning. I’m glad that we read it after the kids knew of his accomplishments. This way they can understand better why he is important and how he got there. Maybe make them be more appreciative of their schooling as well?
Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass
Dean Robbins, ill. Sean Qualls
This is a relatively shorter story of how Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony worked together. While he was fighting for the rights of African Americans to be treated equally, she likewise was fighting for woman to be treated equally. Seeing their similar callings, they met and worked together for equal treatment for all people. Make sure you look at the real-life statue of Anthony and Douglass in Rochester, New York after finishing the book. This leads right into to learning about women’s rights and her work as a suffragette.
Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship
Nikki Giovanni, ill. Bryan Collier
This collage-style art highlights Lincoln’s willingness to accept Douglass despite opposition from Lincoln’s own wife and the cultural expectations of the day. Set side by side, facts from their childhoods are presented to learn more both about Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass. Despite their differences, their similarities brought them together as allies to fight against slavery. As a side story, John Brown and Harper’s Ferry are introduced as leading up to events in the Civil War.
Born in 1797, Isabella Bomfree was born a slave, working for several different masters before she ran away in 1927 with one of her babies. Although she did not dictate her autobiography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, she was already well known for her speaking abilities as she was called to become a traveling preacher, taking for herself a new name as she became a sojourner (traveller) for truth. Working for women’s rights, she gave her famous 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman” speech while working alongside activists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Her life also intersects with Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Abraham Lincoln.
Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth
Anne Rockwell, ill. R. Gregory Christie
Honestly, I had to convince the kids to continue with this book as they didn’t like the illustrations at all. This is a lengthy book that goes into detail regarding her childhood slavery, being sold to a different master, going to trial, and making her ultimate escape. Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth to become a Sojourner as she travels around the U.S. telling her story.
Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp, Stride
Andrea Pinkney, ill. Brian Pinkney
This is another biography that covers her whole life: childhood to freedom to narrating and publishing her book. She “stomps” her way through controversies with full confidence. Unlike some of the other biographies, much of these book covers her 1851 speech when she launches herself before the crowd of men to declare all she is able to accomplish despite being a woman. “Ain’t I a Woman” is quoted at times word for word in a way that makes it easy to follow for kids.
So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk Toward Freedom
Gary D. Schmidt, ill. Daniel Minter
Starting with her enslaved childhood, about half the book covers her travels telling the truth about slavery. Despite her background, this books shows her familiarity the law as it applies to her freedoms and her strength under pressure. Sojourner takes her beliefs to court when her son is illegally sold south and later also stands up to the streetcar conductor who told her she couldn’t ride. She stands tall no matte what. This is a great book to talk to kids about defending our rights to what we know is true.
Born 1822, Harriet escapes slavery in 1849 only to turn back around and rescue many others from their bondage. She later worked as a spy, nurse, and scout during civil war (1861-1865). She led a fascinating, accomplished life. An amazing example to the kids of real-life bravery that brought forth a change.
Before She Was Harriet
Lesa Cline-Ransome, ill. James E. Ransome
With detailed pencil and watercolor paintings, this book is good for little kids with a shorter attention span. It’s a faster read that covers a lot of information. The format is slightly confusing because it starts when she’s older and goes backward in time. It’s a great introduction to Harriet because it covers all of her different roles she held and not just that of a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom
Carole Boston Weatherford, ill. Kadir Nelson
Another beautifully illustrated book by Nelson with large detailed, full color pictures. It covers in detail the difficulties of her escape and touches on her returning to lead other enslaved people to freedom. Note: It would be helpful before reading this book to learn about her faith and belief that God was giving her direct instructions concerning what to do and how; God is depicted as talking to her throughout the book. A Caldecott honor book!
Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman
Alan Schroeder, ill. Jerry Pinkney
In a fictionalized retelling, the author imagines conversations and incidents which might have happened in young Harriet’s life as she endured slavery in her childhood. Her mom and dad are introduced as well as the overseer, the master, and his wife. The detailed watercolor and pencil drawings help shows the frustration she probably felt even as a young child wanting to be free.
Henry Box Brown
Henry’s Freedom Box – Ellen Levine, ill Kadir Nelson
Harriet Beecher Stowe
I couldn’t find any beautiful picture books here. I don’t feel that my kids are old enough to read the original Uncle Tom’s Cabin so that will wait.
William Lloyd Garrison
Let me know if you know of some!
- How much walking did Harriet Tubman do? Sojourner?
- Compare and contrast Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth: appearance, story, travels
- How many times were quakers helpers in these stories?
- Where did all these people live?
- Why do you think there aren’t more stories of deep south slavery?
- What do all these ex-slaves have in common to still be remembered today? (all have books)
- Why is the anti-slavery movement connected so much to the women’s suffrage movement?
- How do we know that Abraham Lincoln heard these abolitionists? What influence do you think it had on him?
- History Chicks: Sojourner Truth
- Stuff You Missed in History Class: Sojourner Truth, Parts 1 & 2
- History Chicks: Harriet Tubman
- Stuff You Missed in History Class: Harriet Tubman & the Underground Railroad, Parts 1& 2
- Stuff You Should Know: The Harriet Tubman Story
- Stuff You Missed in History Class: Frederick Douglass
- Portraits of Blue and Grey: John Brown
- Harriet (2019) – This full-scale box office movie should be in all history curriculums for upper elementary and above. I am a believer in that a picture speaks a 1000 words, and this movie speaks. Although a difficult subject of slavery, the focus of the movie is her determination and dedication to free enslaved people no matter the personal cost. There are no graphic whipping or fight scenes although the difficult life of slavery is evident. There are a handful of curse words including N—- a few times, but my kids and husband didn’t catch on. Look for the cameo from Fredrick Douglass even though he isn’t mentioned by name. Good movie for all.
Historical Fiction for Adults
- The Invention of Wings – Sue Monk Kidd
- The Tubman Command – Elizabeth Cobbs