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22 Books That Celebrate Lesser-Known African Americans and Their Contributions to History

by Charnaie Gordon

Long before Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks etched their names into American history, scores of little-known individuals helped to right decades-old injustices and make significant contributions to society. There are so many people who are often overlooked during Black History Month. That’s why it’s so important to make sure diverse contributions are always part of our conversations about history.

Historically, many African Americans and their contributions have been left out of many American history books and have unfortunately gone unrecognized. For example, did you know that of the estimated 35,000 cowboys who worked ranches and rode trails in the American West, 5,000 – 9,000 or more were Black? Did you know that Thomas L. Jennings, the inventor credited for inventing the dry-cleaning process, was also the first African American to hold a U.S. patent? The patent was issued in 1821.

There are so many interesting things we can learn about the contributions of African Americans to our society and the world. The best part? We can all learn and share about these contributions every day — not just in February.

I hope this list of books inspires you to celebrate those who, without fanfare, played key roles in American history.

  • Picture Books

  • Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer

    by Heather Henson, illustrated by Bryan Collier

    Grab your lantern and follow the remarkable and world-famous Mammoth Cave explorer — and slave — Stephen Bishop as he guides you through Mammoth Cave, the world’s largest cave system. Stephen Bishop, better known as the "slave explorer," was born a slave in Kentucky around 1821. As a teenager he was brought by his master to work as a guide in Mammoth Cave. Located in southwestern Kentucky, Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system in the world, with more than 400 miles of mapped underground passageways.

    Although there were several guides working at the cave, Stephen became the best known guide from 1838 to 1857. Even the Queen of England knew who he was! Stephen was famous for his deep knowledge of the cave, as well as his intelligence and eloquence. Today you can visit Mammoth Cave and see Stephen’s and his wife Charlotte's names etched into the cave.

  • Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race

    by Margot Lee Shetterly, illustrated by Laura Freeman

    Prior to the release of the popular movie “Hidden Figures,” Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden were lesser-known women who only recently received the recognition they deserved. Now the youngest readers can read the story of how these four trailblazing women climbed the ranks at NASA, while facing numerous obstacles. The stories of these women are inspiring, moving, and informative. This picture book is great for any young person interested in the STEM fields.

  • A Dance Like Starlight

    by Kristy Dempsey, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

    If you haven't read this award-winning picture book yet, you should! It's so beautiful and lyrical with gorgeous illustrations to match. Aspiring dancers ages 5-8 will love this one! Little readers will enjoy learning about prima ballerina Janet Collins and the importance of her contribution to dance.

  • Ron’s Big Mission

    by Rose Blue and Corinne Naden, illustrated by Don Tate

    Getting your own library card is an important rite of passage for little readers. But for Ron McNair, who lived in the segregated world of South Carolina in the 1950s, getting his own library card wasn't as easy as it is for kids today.

    Based on the true story of Ron McNair, future scientist and shuttle astronaut, read about how he desegregated his public library through the power of peaceful resistance.

  • Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee!

    by Andrea Loney, illustrated by Keith Mallett

    This book is not only informative, but also beautifully illustrated too. I learned so much about this important man in history. It tells the story of James VanDerZee and his love of the arts, specifically photography. During his lifetime, photographer and artist James VanDerZee created thousands of portraits and took more than 75,000 pictures. Years later, long after James put his camera away due to advanced technology, the Metropolitan Museum of Art found thousands of his photographs showing Harlem residents. They decided to use the photos for an exhibit on the history of Harlem called Harlem on My Mind.

  • Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery

    by Sandra Neil Wallace, illustrated by Bryan Collier

    Have you ever heard of NFL star Ernie Barnes? Prior to reading this book, I had never heard of him. Ernie loved to play football, but he also had an overwhelming love of the arts, specifically painting. Following his longtime dream, Ernie left the football field and went on to become one of the most influential artists of his generation.

  • Art from Her Heart: Folk Artist Clementine Hunter

    by Kathy Whitehead, illustrated by Shane Evans

    Clementine Hunter was a self-taught artist who captured scenes of the backbreaking work and joyous celebrations of southern farm life. She never learned to read or write and didn't like school, but she always had a love of painting. Eventually her work found its way into the New Orleans Museum of Art. Not bad considering she initially sold her artwork for twenty-five cents per piece and was hesitant to charge even that. Today her original paintings are worth thousands of dollars and are sold in galleries across the country. They are also on permanent display in many museums. Clementine painted until her last days and lived to be 100 years old.

  • Before There Was Mozart: The Story of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George

    by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome

    Before there was Mozart, there was Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George. Born on Christmas Day in 1739 on the tiny island of Guadeloupe in the West Indies, Joseph was the son of a White plantation owner and a Black slave. He became known as the most talented violin player and musician in France before Mozart was well-known. In 2001, a street, Rue du Chevalier de Saint-George, was named in his honor. An awesome historical nonfiction book for children and music lovers of all ages.

  • The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist

    by Cynthia Levinson, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

    Nine-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks was an ordinary girl in a lot of ways. She liked to help her mother cook, she sang in the church choir, she went to school, she loved to eat ice cream, and she especially loved her mother’s recipe for hot rolls baptized in butter … yum! But being the youngest child to get arrested in the 1963 Children’s March made her quite extraordinary.

    The Youngest Marcher is a beautiful and important nonfiction book that helps children understand they are never too young to make a difference and change the world. Perfect for reading with your little readers during Black History Month, Women’s History Month, or any time of the year.

  • Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten

    by Laura Veirs, illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

    Born near Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1893, Grammy Award Winner Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten (born Elizabeth Nevills) was an African American blues guitarist who invented “cotten picking.” At age 11, she picked up her brother Claude’s guitar and picked the strings with the instrument upside down and backwards (because she was left-handed), and kept the sound in perfect pitch. Libba eventually went on to play shows with big names like Muddy Waters and performed at prestigious cathedrals in London and Rome. She played until she was well into her 80s. In 1984, she finally got her big break and won the Grammy Award for “Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording.” Libba spent her last days in Syracuse, New York where she died in 1987. Fans of her music might be inspired to visit the park called “Libba Cotten Grove” in Syracuse, which still exists today.

  • Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe

    by Deborah Blumenthal, illustrated by Laura Freeman

    This book tells the story of little known African American fashion designer Ann Cole Lowe who was most famous for designing Jacqueline Kennedy's wedding dress. Throughout her lifetime, Ann battled personal and social adversity in order to pursue her passion of making beautiful gowns. Sadly, she never received the full recognition and accolades she deserved. She died in 1981 at the age of 82. Not too wordy and packed with gorgeous illustrations, this story is perfect for little fashionistas and lovers of sewing.

  • Harlem's Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills

    by Renée Watson, illustrated by Christian Robinson

    Born to parents who were former slaves, Florence knew early on that she loved to sing. And that people really responded to her sweet, bird-like voice. Her dancing and singing catapulted her all the way to the stages of 1920s Broadway where she inspired songs and even entire plays! Yet with all this success, she knew firsthand how bigotry shaped her world. And when she was offered the role of a lifetime from Ziegfeld himself, she chose to support all-Black musicals instead.

  • Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers’ Journey from Slave to Artist

    by Barbara Herkert, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

    Harriet Angeline Powers was a young slave girl who learned to sew and quilt on a Georgia plantation. She began making quilts that told stories. Her first story quilt is on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. Today her story quilts are priceless treasures. Such an empowering and inspirational book for young children to read. Also great for those who love sewing, quilting, or crocheting.

  • Middle Grade

  • Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America

    by Tonya Bolden

    Sarah Rector was once hailed as the richest Black girl in America, but how did a poor farming girl become so wealthy? Sarah and her family were "Creek freedmen," Black citizens of the Creek Indian nation. When the Creeks were forced to resettle west of the Mississippi in the 1800s, each one received a land allotment. Little did Sarah know that her land contained rich oil deposits, and when an oil well drilled on her land at the age of 12, Sarah instantly became very wealthy. A guardian was appointed to manage her rapidly increasing fortune until she came of age. When Sarah turned 18 in 1920, she had amassed a fortune estimated at $1 million. A great story that highlights many of the travesties of justice that happened to many Blacks and Native Americans in early Indian Territories which later became known as the state of Oklahoma.

  • The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights

    by Steve Sheinkin

    An intriguing story about a little known event in 1944 in which war and civil rights collided. On August 9th, 1944, 244 men refused to go back to work until unsafe and unfair conditions at the docks were addressed. Told through stories of 50 men accused of mutiny, this is a gripping book about fighting for equal treatment in the armed forces.

  • Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York

    by Amy Hill Hearth

    One hundred years before Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights era took place, there was Elizabeth Jennings who was best known for standing up against racial injustice and discrimination. A fascinating and inspirational story about a lesser-known historical figure that readers young and old are sure to love. Great for anyone interested in learning about the fight for equal rights in America.

  • Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice

    by Phillip Hoose

    Overshadowed by popular Civil Rights leaders like Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Claudette Colvin was the first woman to refuse to give up her seat to a White person on a bus. Claudette's incident occurred nine months before Rosa Parks came along. Sadly, Claudette was never given the credit she deserved, likely because she had a baby at a young age, which was often shunned in her generation. The book provides both background information about the general context of the Civil Rights Movement and tells Claudette's story.

  • A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson

    by Michelle Y. Green, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

    Learn about the true story of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson who was one of only three women to ever play professional baseball during the Negro League Baseball era. Mamie’s baseball career started out as a dream, which inspired her to overcome any obstacles that came between her and playing in the majors. This book is a good introduction to Mamie Johnson's life, the fight for equality, and the power of dreams.

  • Who Were the Tuskegee Airmen?

    by Sherri L. Smith, illustrated by Jake Murray

    From 1941 through 1946 a little under 1,000 Black men graduated with commissions and pilot wings from Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF) in Tuskegee, Alabama. The first Black American aviators to serve in combat, the Tuskegee Airmen were pilots who helped the United States win World War II and persuaded President Harry Truman to end segregation across the entire military.

What other books would you add to this list? Share your recommendations in the comments below.

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