Focus on African American History

Focus on African American History

Central Rappahannock Regional Library’s Rappahannock Reads runs throughout the month of February and is an opportunity for everyone in the community to read and discuss the same book. CRRL’s 2017 Rappahannock Reads title is Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly, which tells the true story of the African American female mathematicians who went to work as “human computers” at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in Hampton, Virginia, during World War II.

Though these women were brilliant, racism and sexism had severely limited their employment options until the labor shortage during World War II opened up opportunities which they leapt at, finally able to put their exceptional mathematical skills to use. NACA eventually became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), where these women continued to perform complex calculations, helping NASA land John Glenn on the Moon and the U.S. win the Cold War.

Shetterly’s book, the basis for the award-winning movie, is also available in a young readers’ edition for children and teens and is an excellent opportunity for the whole family to read and discuss the lives of these amazing women and their role in our country’s history.

Participate in this community read throughout February, then come to CRRL’s culminating Rappahannock Reads event on Saturday, March 4 to hear the author speak at Dodd Auditorium at the University of Mary Washington. More information on Rappahannock Reads is available on the library’s website.Mumbet's Declaration of Independence

Hidden Figures is, of course, just one of many excellent books focusing on the lives and contributions of African Americans throughout the history of our country. I’m highlighting a few here and encourage you to take a look at CRRL’s “Our Stories: The African American Experience” booklists for more suggested titles for children and teens.

Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence, by Gretchen Woelfle, tells the story of Mumbet, an enslaved woman in colonial Massachusetts. As colonists begin to talk openly about their freedom from Britain, Mumbet wonders if those freedoms apply to her. When a new state constitution is ratified, declaring that all people are born free and equal, Mumbet is inspired to sue her owner in court, demanding her freedom and challenging the legality of slavery. This is the first time Mumbet’s story has been told in a picture book biography, and Woelfle presents an important piece of history in a way that is easy for children to understand.

Starting with an 1828 estate sale bill listing several slaves by only their first name and a price, author and illustrator Ashley Bryan gives these individuals more humanity by imagining a life for each: what age they might have been, the personality characteristics they may have displayed, how they may have spent their days, and what dreams they may have had. In Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life, Bryan recognizes each person separately with a portrait and self-titled poem and also ties them together by imagining the relationships between them.

In Unbound, author Ann E. Burg shines a light on the intriguing history of escaped slaves making their lives in the Great Dismal Swamp. When young Grace Unboundis called up from her family’s cabin to work in the “big house,” she is warned to keep her eyes down and her thoughts to herself, a difficult thing for a smart girl witnessing the brutality and injustice of slavery every day. When Grace finds out that brutality and injustice are going to come down hard on her family, they must decide if they will risk their lives and run or stay and be torn apart.

On September 24, 2016, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened on The National Mall in Washington, D.C. One hundred years in the making, the museum grew out of a movement originally started in 1915 to establish a memorial in the capitol to honor African American veterans of war. While suffering setback after setback over the decades, the plan for the veteran’s memorial evolved into a desire for a “national museum devoted to black history and culture that would join the Smithsonian Institution’s family of museums.”

How to Build a Museum: Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, by Tonya Bolden, succinctly recounts the long road to establishing the museum and then dives into the planning, construction, and accumulation of artifacts and items for the collection, many of them donated by individuals. How to Build a Museum includes photos of many items in the collection, from a black soldier’s gunpowder horn used during the American Revolution to Harriet Tubman’s hymnal to a leotard worn by Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas.

This column originally appeared in The Free Lance-Star newspaper.