love Black History, and so revel in Black History Month. Not tht
Black History should be constrained to a month. Indeed, when I
wrote my book Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic
History in 2010, I hoped that some folks would touch the book each
day and talk about the many ways African American people have
shaped our nation’s economic life, from building this
country, to being the basis of our bond system. Despite my work,
and that of others, Black History Month celebrations seem to
center on the men in our history, and on the familiar names. Our
45th President has lifted up Frederick Douglas, touting his many
as if he is still living. Doesn't anyone give this man talking
points? He needs to be locked into the Museum of African American
History and Culture, and then forced to watch Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro. This would include Omarosa Manigault,
director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison in the
Trump White House. I digress.
heard of Frederick Douglas (1818-1895), Ida B. Wells, Dr. Dorothy
Height, WEB DuBois and Mary McLeod Bethune. But do you know
Venture Smith, Mary Bowser, James Forten, Charles Wiggins, Clara
Smith, Paul R. Williams, and Jackie Ormes? These are among the
Pathfinders that Tonya Bolden has lifted up in her book, Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls.
Her book is extraordinary not only because it features the
biographies of relatively unknown and amazing African Americans,
but also because she puts their lives in context. Thus, each
biography talks about what was happening historically during the
subject’s lives. She also highlights their contemporaries,
expanding the reach of the book and, perhaps, challenging students
to do their own research about other notable African Americans.
Bolden is an award-winning children’s book author, but
Pathfinders is no children’s book. To be sure it should be
ordered in every school library and purchased by many parents.
But young people will not be the only ones enhanced by a book that
highlights sixteen stellar African Americans, many unknown.
Bolden says, “Without denying racism and oppression, I did
not want to talk about racism, but about accomplishment.”
So she set out to offer a range of occupations for the young
people who will read her book. “I wanted to give kids
variety,” she told me. “I also wanted to expose them
to people who had done something.” Black folks have done
amazing things, and Bolden says she wants to encourage young
people to “dream big and take chances”. Her book
reflects that, lifting up Richard Potter, a Black magician who
traveled the world as a cabin boy before joining a circus,
studying with a ventriloquist, and stepping out on his own to be,
says Bolden, “the first magician born in the United States
to have success in the land of his birth.” Or who would
have thought that Sissieretta Jones, the daughter of enslaved
people, would have had a successful career as a concert singer?
Jones performed at Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall, sung
at the White House for President Benjamin Harrison, and completed
a European tour. Bolden says she wants young people to “think
big”. Well, in spotlighting Sissieretta Jones, she
encourages that dream. While the average American earned about
$400 a year in Jones’ heyday, her earnings were more than
$8000 a year. She was one of the highest paid Black entertainers
in the United States.
richness of Bolden’s book lies in the fact that she does
offer occupational variety. There are entertainers but there are
also women near and dear to my heart, women that I’ve
written about over the years. One is Dr. Sadie Tanner Mosell
Alexander, the first African American woman to receive the Ph.D.
in economics, and one of the first three to receive the Ph.D. in
a single week in June 1921. Georgiana Rose Simpson earned her
Ph.D. in German from the University of Chicago, and Eva Beatrice
Dykes earned her Ph.D. in English from Radcliffe (now Harvard).
She taught at DC’s Dunbar High School, Howard University and
Oakwood College (now University) in Huntsville, Alabama.
sister Bolden lifts up is Maggie Lena Walker, the first African
American woman to form and run a bank, Penny Savings Bank, in
Richmond, Virginia. Maggie Lena, cannily merged her bank with
others to survive the Great Depression, and the bank thrived until
it closed in 2009. As an economist, Maggie Lena Walker and Dr.
Sadie Tanner Mosell Alexander resonate with me, but many will also
enjoy the lives of architect Paul Williams, combat pilot Eugene
Ballard, or filmmaker Oscar Michaeaux. Katherine Coleman Goble
Johnson, the woman whose accomplishments were highlighted in the
movie, Hidden Figures, is also featured in Bolden’s book.
can we learn from these Pathfinders? We can appreciate their
achievement against all odds. We can appreciate their faith and
their contributions. And, most importantly, we can be inspired by
their contributions and by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King.
“Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.”
The service of these Pathfinders should inspire our own drive to
achieve, to accomplish and, most importantly, to serve. Tonya
Bolden’s book is an absolutely worthy addition to your
library! On Saturday March 18, 2017 to honor those in the books
and our communities authorless book parties will be held around
the country. To participate or host an event contact The African
American Children's Book Project.