Black history month should not be the only time you expose your students to famous African Americans and their culture and history. However, it is a great time to celebrate the culture and teach your students about African Americans that have overcome discrimination and other obstacles to help shape our history.
Often, teachers stick with well known African Americans like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Barack Obama. While these are inspiring people with inspiring stories, there are so many other influential people to introduce your students to.
The biographies below are some of my favorite. They tell stories of perseverance and overcoming odds. My 3rd grade students used some of these biographies when completing their Black History Month Research Project every year.
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1. Madam C.J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove)
Madam C.J. Walker was an entrepreneur and one of the first female self-made millionaires in the United States of any race – if not THE first. She built a business around hair care treatment and products for African Americans. She also established several beauty schools that provided African Americans women with good jobs and encouraged African Americans to start their own businesses. Madam C.J. Walker used her wealth and influence to promote equal rights and fair treatment of African Americans. She was an inspiration to many people.
2. Wilma Rudolph
Wilma Rudolph was born small and sickly. When she was 4, she got polio. Most people who got polio during this time period either died or were permanently crippled. But not Wilma! She was determined to overcome her disabilities and she eventually became the fast woman in the world – the first American woman to win 3 gold medals in a single Olympics!
3. Bass Reeves
Bass Reeves was born a slave in Texas. He grew up to be one of the first African American Deputy U.S. Marshals. He was responsible for tracking down outlaws in a dangerous area. He did his job well, showing courage, intelligence, and honesty as he captured criminals.
If you are going to teach younger students about Bass Reeves, be aware that guns and killing were a big part of his life.
4. John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie was born into a poor family with an abusive father. Music became an important part of his life. He wrote and played music in a way that had never been done before. Many people believe he is the best jazz trumpeter of all time. He helped shape shape jazz and bepop into what it is today.
This particular picture book by Jonah Winter would be especially inspiring to young students born into difficult situations. It talks about Dizzy being angry as a child and getting into a lot of fights, but eventually turning to music instead of fighting. The author’s note at the back explains how Dizzy was an excellent role model, never doing drugs like many of his jazz counterparts.
5. Ann Cole Lowe
Ann’s mom was a seamstress, and she taught Ann how to sew at a young age. When Ann was 16, her mom died and she took over the family business. Ann’s skill as a seamstress grew, and she eventually began designing one-of-a-kind dresses and became a sought after fashion designer.
I love the theme of this particular picture book, as it emphasizes several times that life wasn’t fair for Ann, but that didn’t stop her.
6. Phillis Wheatley
Phillis was brought to America from Africa on a slave ship. She was bought by John and Susanna Wheatley. The Wheatley’s taught her to read and write. They encouraged her love of reading and writing poetry. Phillis became the first African American to publish a book of poetry.
This particular picture book discusses how Phillis had to prove that she was the author of the poems she had written, since very few people at that time thought an African American woman could have written these poems.
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