Today marks the beginning of Black History Month, and I want to share a list of 28 books to read this month (one for every day) that both celebrate and educate about Black History.
Black History Month has its roots in America all the way back to 1926, when historian Carter G. Woodson created “Negro History Week”. This celebration eventually evolved into Black History Month, a month dedicated to recognizing the historical people and events that were all too often left out of the history books.
I have to be honest with you all, this is one of the hardest lists I’ve ever had to write. I really struggled, not because of the subject matter or the holiday itself, but because 28 books just isn’t enough. Narrowing the entire Black experience down to one list is simply an impossible task.
Though there are obviously many more stories to be heard, I tried to include a variety of books from different periods of history that will speak to a variety of young readers with varied interests. I also tried to include historical figures that many people may not have heard of yet.
So, without further ado, here are my choices for Black History Month.
“Letter by letter, The ABCs of Black History celebrates a story that spans continents and centuries, triumph and heartbreak, creativity and joy.
It’s a story of big ideas––P is for Power, S is for Science and Soul. Of significant moments––G is for Great Migration. Of iconic figures––H is for Zora Neale Hurston, X is for Malcom X. It’s an ABC book like no other, and a story of hope and love.
In addition to rhyming text, the book includes back matter with information on the events, places, and people mentioned in the poem, from Mae Jemison to W. E. B. Du Bois, Fannie Lou Hamer to Sam Cooke, and the Little Rock Nine to DJ Kool Herc.”
“Featuring 40 trailblazing black women in American history, Little Leaders educates and inspires as it relates true stories of breaking boundaries and achieving beyond expectations. Illuminating narration paired with irresistible illustrations bring to life both iconic and lesser-known female figures of Black history such as abolitionist Sojourner Truth, pilot Bessie Coleman, chemist Alice Ball, politician Shirley Chisholm, mathematician Katherine Johnson, poet Maya Angelou, and filmmaker Julie Dash.
Among these biographies, readers will find heroes, role models, and everyday women who did extraordinary things – bold women whose actions and beliefs contributed to making the world better for generations of girls and women to come. Whether they were putting pen to paper, soaring through the air, or speaking up for the rights of others, the women profiled here were all taking a stand against a world that didn’t always accept them.
The leaders in this book may be little, but they all did something big and amazing, inspiring generations to come.”
“An important book for readers of all ages, this beautifully illustrated and engagingly written volume brings to life true stories of black men in history. Among these biographies, readers will find aviators and artists, politicians and pop stars, athletes and activists. The exceptional men featured include writer James Baldwin, artist Aaron Douglas, filmmaker Oscar Devereaux Micheaux, lawman Bass Reeves, civil rights leader John Lewis, dancer Alvin Ailey, and musician Prince.
The legends in Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History span centuries and continents, but each one has blazed a trail for generations to come.”
“Climbing aboard the New York bound Silver Meteor train, Ruth Ellen embarks upon a journey toward a new life up North– one she can’t begin to imagine. Stop by stop, the perceptive young narrator tells her journey in poems, leaving behind the cotton fields and distant Blue Ridge mountains.
Each leg of the trip brings new revelations as scenes out the window of folks working in fields give way to the Delaware River, the curtain that separates the colored car is removed, and glimpses of the freedom and opportunity the family hopes to find come into view. As they travel, Ruth Ellen reads from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, reflecting on how her journey mirrors her own– until finally the train arrives at its last stop, New York’s Penn Station, and the family heads out into a night filled with bright lights, glimmering stars, and new possiblity.
James Ransome’s mixed-media illustrations are full of bold color and texture, bringing Ruth Ellen’s journey to life, from sprawling cotton fields to cramped train cars, the wary glances of other passengers and the dark forest through which Frederick Douglass traveled towards freedom. Overground Railroad is, as Lesa notes, a story “of people who were running from and running to at the same time,” and it’s a story that will stay with readers long after the final pages.”
Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968 by Alice Faye Duncan, Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Bookshop | Amazon)
“This picture book tells the story of a nine-year-old girl who in 1968 witnessed the Memphis sanitation strike – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final stand for justice before his assassination – when her father, a sanitation worker, participated in the protest.
In February 1968, two African American sanitation workers were killed by unsafe equipment in Memphis, Tennessee. Outraged at the city’s refusal to recognize a labor union that would fight for higher pay and safer working conditions, sanitation workers went on strike. The strike lasted two months, during which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was called to help with the protests. While his presence was greatly inspiring to the community, this unfortunately would be his last stand for justice. He was assassinated in his Memphis hotel the day after delivering his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon in Mason Temple Church. Inspired by the memories of a teacher who participated in the strike as a child, author Alice Faye Duncan reveals the story of the Memphis sanitation strike from the perspective of a young girl with a riveting combination of poetry and prose.”
What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?: The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan by Chris Barton, Illustrated by Ekua Holmes (Bookshop | Amazon)
“Even as a child growing up in the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas, Barbara Jordan stood out for her big, bold, booming, crisp, clear, confident voice. It was a voice that made people sit up, stand up, and take notice.
So what do you do with a voice like that?
Barbara took her voice to places few African American women had been in the 1960s: first law school, then the Texas state senate, then up to the United States congress. Throughout her career, she persevered through adversity to give voice to the voiceless and to fight for civil rights, equality, and justice.
New York Times bestselling author Chris Barton and Caldecott Honoree Ekua Holmes deliver a remarkable picture book biography about a woman whose struggles and mission continue to inspire today.”
Gordon Parks: How The Photographer Captured Black and White America by Carole Boston Weatherford, Illustrated by Jamey Christoph (Bookshop | Amazon)
“His white teacher tells her all-black class, You’ll all wind up porters and waiters. What did she know? Gordon Parks is most famous for being the first black director in Hollywood. But before he made movies and wrote books, he was a poor African American looking for work. When he bought a camera, his life changed forever. He taught himself how to take pictures and before long, people noticed. His success as a fashion photographer landed him a job working for the government. In Washington DC, Gordon went looking for a subject, but what he found was segregation. He and others were treated differently because of the color of their skin. Gordon wanted to take a stand against the racism he observed. With his camera in hand, he found a way. Told through lyrical verse and atmospheric art, this is the story of how, with a single photograph, a self-taught artist got America to take notice.”
The Power Of Her Pen: The Story Of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne by Lesa Cline-Ransome, Illustrated by John Parra (Bookshop | Amazon)
“Ethel Payne always had an ear for stories. Seeking truth, justice, and equality, Ethel followed stories from her school newspaper in Chicago to Japan during World War II. It even led her to the White House briefing room, where she broke barriers as the only black female journalist. Ethel wasn’t afraid to ask the tough questions of presidents, elected officials, or anyone else in charge, earning her the title, “First Lady of the Black Press.”
Fearless and determined, Ethel Payne shined a light on the darkest moments in history, and her ear for stories sought answers to the questions that mattered most in the fight for Civil Rights.”
One Step Further: My Story of Math, the Moon, and a Lifelong Mission by Katherine Johnson, Joylette Hylick, and Katherine Moore, Illustrated by Charlene Pinkney Barlowe (Bookshop | Amazon)
“This inspirational picture book reveals what is was like for a young black mother of three to navigate the difficult world of the 1950s and 60s and to succeed in an unwelcoming industry to become one of the now legendary “hidden figures” of NASA computing and space research.
Johnson”s own empowering narrative is complemented by the recollections of her two daughters about their mother”s work and insights about how she illuminated their paths, including one daughter”s fight for civil rights and another”s journey to become a NASA mathematician herself. The narrative gracefully weaves together Johnson”s personal story, her influence on her daughters” formative years, her and her daughters” fight for civil rights, and her lasting impact on NASA and space exploration. Filled with personal reflections, exclusive family archival photos, and striking illustrations, readers will be immersed in this deeply personal portrayal of female empowerment, women in STEM, and the breaking down of race barriers across generations. Historical notes, photo/illustration notes, and a time line put the story into historical and modern-day context.
The inspirational tale of Johnson”s perseverance is both intimate and global, showcasing the drive of each generation to push one step further than the last. With its evocative family album-style format and novel approach to storytelling, One Step Further is sure to inspire the next generation of rising stars.”
“I couldn’t play on the same playground as the white kids.
I couldn’t go to their schools.
I couldn’t drink from their water fountains.
There were so many things I couldn’t do.
In 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, thousands of African American children volunteered to march for their civil rights after hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak. They protested the laws that kept black people separate from white people. Facing fear, hate, and danger, these children used their voices to change the world. Frank Morrison’s emotive oil-on-canvas paintings bring this historical event to life, while Monica Clark-Robinson’s moving and poetic words document this remarkable time.”
“Sally is a young girl living in rural Alabama in the early 1900s, a time when people were struggling to grow food in soil that had been depleted by years of cotton production. One day, Dr. George Washington Carver shows up to help the grown-ups with their farms and the children with their school garden. He teaches them how to restore the soil and respect the balance of nature. He even prepares a delicious lunch made of plants, including “chicken” made from peanuts. And Sally never forgets the lessons this wise man leaves in her heart and mind. Susan Grigsby’s warm story shines new light on a Black scientist who was ahead of his time.”
Song in a Rainstorm: The Story of Musical Prodigy Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins by Glenda Armand, Illustrated by Brittany Jackson (Bookshop | Amazon)
“Born blind into a life of slavery, Thomas Wiggins was dismissed as a “useless burden.” But through the loving protection of his family, he went on to become one of the greatest musicians of his time. From Tom’s childhood on a plantation to his performances in the concert halls of Europe, Glenda Armand shares the beautiful and at times heartbreaking story of a long-overlooked musical great, the love that supported him, and the struggle for freedom.”
You can also read my full review of Song In A Rainstorm for more detail.
“Born to parents who were both former slaves, Florence Mills knew at an early age that she loved to sing, and that her sweet, bird-like voice, resonated with those who heard her. Performing catapulted her all the way to the stages of 1920s Broadway where she inspired everyone from songwriters to playwrights. Yet with all her success, she knew firsthand how prejudice shaped her world and the world of those around her. As a result, Florence chose to support and promote works by her fellow black performers while heralding a call for their civil rights. Featuring a moving text and colorful illustrations, Harlem’s Little Blackbird is a timeless story about justice, equality, and the importance of following one’s heart and dreams.”
Playing to Win: How Althea Gibson Broke Barriers and Changed Tennis Forever by Karen Deans, Illustrated by Elbrite Brown (Bookshop | Amazon)
“Although stars like Serena Williams cite Althea Gibson as an inspiration, Gibson’s story is not well-known to many young people today. Growing up tough and rebellious in Harlem, Althea took that fighting attitude and used it to go after her goals of being a tennis champion, and a time when tennis was a game played mostly by wealthy white people in country clubs that excluded African Americans.
In 1956, she became the first Black American to win a major championship when she won at The French Open. When she won the celebrated Wimbledon tournament the following year, Gibson shook hands with the Queen of England. Not bad for a kid from the streets of Harlem.
With determination and undeniable skill, Althea Gibson become a barrier-breaking, record-setting, and world-famous sportswoman. This new and updated edition of this inspirational biography contains recent information on the impact of Gibson’s legacy.”
“We know her today as Harriet Tubman, but in her lifetime she was called by many names. As General Tubman she was a Union spy. As Moses she led hundreds to freedom on the Underground Railroad. As Minty she was a slave whose spirit could not be broken. As Araminta she was a young girl whose father showed her the stars and the first steps on the path to freedom.
This lush, lyrical biography in verse begins with a glimpse of Harriet Tubman as an old woman, and travels back in time through the many roles she played through her life: spy, liberator, suffragist and more. Illustrated by James Ransome, whose paintings for The Creation won a Coretta Scott King medal, this is a riveting introduction to an American hero.”
“Originally performed for ESPN’s The Undefeated, this poem is a love letter to black life in the United States. It highlights the unspeakable trauma of slavery, the faith and fire of the civil rights movement, and the grit, passion, and perseverance of some of the world’s greatest heroes. The text is also peppered with references to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others, offering deeper insights into the accomplishments of the past, while bringing stark attention to the endurance and spirit of those surviving and thriving in the present. Robust back matter at the end provides valuable historical context and additional detail for those wishing to learn more.”
“This inspiring picture book tells the story of the friendship between Flo, Mary, and Diana, and how by supporting each other they overcame hardship to become international superstars.
It’s 1960, and Flo, Mary, and Diana are three friends with big ambitions. They want to be superstars! But 1960s America was not the easiest place for young black girls from the projects to make it big. They audition for the new Motown Records label, but the manager says NO. Not to be put off, the girls try again, and this time, they succeed. They become…The Supremes!
They travel the world, singing hit after hit. Of course they have falling outs, like all friends do, but with a shared dream to keep their friendship strong, they became the USA’s most successful vocal group ever.”
You can also read my full review of We Are The Supremes for more detail.
The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko, Illustrated by Sean Qualls (Bookshop | Amazon)
“For most children these days it would come as a great shock to know that before 1967, they could not marry a person of a race different from their own. That was the year that the Supreme Court issued its decision in Loving v. Virginia.
This is the story of one brave family: Mildred Loving, Richard Perry Loving, and their three children. It is the story of how Mildred and Richard fell in love, and got married in Washington, D.C. But when they moved back to their hometown in Virginia, they were arrested (in dramatic fashion) for violating that state’s laws against interracial marriage. The Lovings refused to allow their children to get the message that their parents’ love was wrong and so they fought the unfair law, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court – and won!”
The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Bookshop | Amazon)
“In the 1930s, Lewis’s dad, Lewis Michaux Sr., had an itch he needed to scratch―a book itch. How to scratch it? He started a bookstore in Harlem and named it the National Memorial African Bookstore.
And as far as Lewis Michaux Jr. could tell, his father’s bookstore was one of a kind. People from all over came to visit the store, even famous people―Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, and Langston Hughes, to name a few. In his father’s bookstore people bought and read books, and they also learned from each other. People swapped and traded ideas and talked about how things could change. They came together here all because of his father’s book itch. Read the story of how Lewis Michaux Sr. and his bookstore fostered new ideas and helped people stand up for what they believed in.”
Patricia’s Vision: The Doctor Who Saved Sight by Michelle Lord, Illustrated by Alleanna Harris (Bookshop | Amazon)
“The inspiring story of Dr. Patricia Bath, a groundbreaking ophthalmologist who pioneered laser surgery—and gave her patients the gift of sight.
Born in the 1940s, Patricia Bath dreamed of being an ophthalmologist at a time when becoming a doctor wasn’t a career option for most women—especially African-American women. This empowering biography follows Dr. Bath in her quest to save and restore sight to the blind, and her decision to “choose miracles” when everyone else had given up hope. Along the way, she cofounded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, invented a specialized laser for removing cataracts, and became the first African-American woman doctor to receive a medical patent.”
Freedom In Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford, Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Bookshop | Amazon)
“This poetic, nonfiction story about a little-known piece of African American history captures a human’s capacity to find hope and joy in difficult circumstances and demonstrates how New Orleans’ Congo Square was truly freedom’s heart.
Mondays, there were hogs to slop,
mules to train, and logs to chop.
Slavery was no ways fair.
Six more days to Congo Square.
As slaves relentlessly toiled in an unjust system in 19th century Louisiana, they all counted down the days until Sunday, when at least for half a day they were briefly able to congregate in Congo Square in New Orleans. Here they were free to set up an open market, sing, dance, and play music. They were free to forget their cares, their struggles, and their oppression. This story chronicles slaves’ duties each day, from chopping logs on Mondays to baking bread on Wednesdays to plucking hens on Saturday, and builds to the freedom of Sundays and the special experience of an afternoon spent in Congo Square. This book includes a forward from Freddi Williams Evans (freddievans.com), a historian and Congo Square expert, as well as a glossary of terms with pronunciations and definitions.”
A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story by Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan, Illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Bookshop | Amazon)
“A Ride to Remember tells how a community came together—both black and white—to make a change. When Sharon Langley was born in the early 1960s, many amusement parks were segregated, and African-American families were not allowed entry. This book reveals how in the summer of 1963, due to demonstrations and public protests, the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Maryland became desegregated and opened to all for the first time. Co-author Sharon Langley was the first African-American child to ride the carousel. This was on the same day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Langley’s ride to remember demonstrated the possibilities of King’s dream. This book includes photos of Sharon on the carousel, authors’ notes, a timeline, and a bibliography.”
When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill, Illustrated by Theodore Taylor III (Bookshop | Amazon)
“Before there was hip hop, there was DJ Kool Herc.
On a hot day at the end of summer in 1973 Cindy Campbell threw a back-to-school party at a park in the South Bronx. Her brother, Clive Campbell, spun the records. He had a new way of playing the music to make the breaks―the musical interludes between verses―longer for dancing. He called himself DJ Kool Herc and this is When the Beat Was Born. From his childhood in Jamaica to his youth in the Bronx, Laban Carrick Hill’s book tells how Kool Herc came to be a DJ, how kids in gangs stopped fighting in order to breakdance, and how the music he invented went on to define a culture and transform the world.”
Opal’s Greenwood Oasis by Quraysh Ali Lansana and Najah-Amatullah Hylton, Illustrated by Skip Hill (Bookshop | Amazon)
“The year is 1921, and Opal Brown would like to show you around her beautiful neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Filled with busy stores and happy families, Opal also wants you to know that “everyone looks like me.”
In both words and illustrations, this carefully researched and historically accurate book allows children to experience the joys and success of Greenwood, one of the most prosperous Black communities of the early 20th Century, an area Booker T. Washington dubbed America’s Black Wall Street.
Soon after the day narrated by Opal, Greenwood would be lost in the Tulsa Race Massacre, the worst act of racial violence in American history. As we approach the centennial of that tragic event, children have the opportunity through this book to learn and celebrate all that was built in Greenwood.”
You can also read my full review of Opal’s Greenwood Oasis for more detail.
Lift as You Climb: The Story of Ella Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell, Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Bookshop | Amazon)
““What do you hope to accomplish?” asked Ella Baker’s granddaddy when she was still a child.
Her mother provided the answer: “Lift as you climb.”
Long before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, Ella Baker worked to lift others up by fighting racial injustice and empowering poor African Americans to stand up for their rights. Her dedication and grassroots work in many communities made her a valuable ally for leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and she has been ranked as one of the most influential women in the civil rights movement. In the 1960s she worked to register voters and organize sit-ins, and she became a teacher and mentor to many young activists.
Caldecott Honor winner R. Gregory Christie’s powerful pictures pair with Patricia Hruby Powell’s poignant words to paint a vivid portrait of the fight for the freedom of the human spirit.”
Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks by Suzanne Slade, Illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera (Bookshop | Amazon)
“Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000) is known for her poems about “real life.” She wrote about love, loneliness, family, and poverty—showing readers how just about anything could become a beautiful poem. Exquisite follows Gwendolyn from early girlhood into her adult life, showcasing her desire to write poetry from a very young age. This picture-book biography explores the intersections of race, gender, and the ubiquitous poverty of the Great Depression—all with a lyrical touch worthy of the subject. Gwendolyn Brooks was the first Black person to win the Pulitzer Prize, receiving the award for poetry in 1950. And in 1958, she was named the poet laureate of Illinois. A bold artist who from a very young age dared to dream, Brooks will inspire young readers to create poetry from their own lives.”
Sugar Hill: Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood by Carole Boston Weatherford, Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Bookshop | Amazon)
“Take a walk through Harlem’s Sugar Hill and meet all the amazing people who made this neighborhood legendary. With upbeat rhyming, read-aloud text, Sugar Hill celebrates the Harlem neighborhood that successful African Americans first called home during the 1920s. Children raised in Sugar Hill not only looked up to these achievers but also experienced art and culture at home, at church, and in the community. Books, music lessons, and art classes expanded their horizons beyond the narrow limits of segregation. Includes brief biographies of jazz greats Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis; artists Aaron Douglas and Faith Ringgold; entertainers Lena Horne and the Nicholas Brothers; writer Zora Neale Hurston; civil rights leader W. E. B. DuBois and lawyer Thurgood Marshall.”
“When Kamala Harris was young, she often accompanied her parents to civil rights marches—so many, in fact, that when her mother asked a frustrated Kamala what she wanted, the young girl responded with: “Freedom!”
As Kamala grew from a small girl in Oakland to a senator running for president, it was this long-fostered belief in freedom and justice for all people that shaped her into the inspiring figure she is today. From fighting for the use of a soccer field in middle school to fighting for the people of her home state in Congress, Senator Harris used her voice to speak up for what she believed in and for those who were otherwise unheard. And now this dedication has led her all the way to being elected Vice President of the United States.
Told in Nikki Grimes’s stunning verse and featuring gorgeous illustrations by Laura Freeman, this picture book biography brings to life a story that shows all young people that the American dream can belong to all of us if we fight for one another.”
I hope you all enjoyed the list, and maybe even found a few places or people that are new to you or your young readers.
What are your favorite books to read and share for Black History Month? Be sure to share any favorites I missed in the comments below!
If you are someone who only reads books about or by Black folks during Black History Month, I want to encourage you to read like every month is Black History Month. I hope you will use this list as a starting point, because there are thousands of other amazing titles that are not included in this list, but are great books to read in any month.