Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Free at Last! Stories and Songs of Emancipation

by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Shane W. Evans. This book is the second in a series of three books by Rappaport chronicling American history as related to Black Americans in the years 1863 to 1954. In the introduction she says:

Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass hoped that the end of the Civil War marked the beginning of equality for black Americans. In his newspaper, The New National Era, he intended to detail black progress. But the equality that black Americans hoped for quickly vanished with a series of “legal” injustices and violence that made life for Southern blacks more fragile than it had been unde slavery. The daily humiliations and continuous brutality against black men, women, and children during this time make it one of the most shameful periods in American history.

Nevertheless, the black community found strength and determination to sustain itself and to fight back. This book traces their courageous struggle to re-create family life and economic independence in the face of over whelming danger and uncertainty.

This is a large book (10”x11.5”) with beautiful full-color illustrations painted by Shane W. Evans. The print is large and the history told as stories, songs and poetry. I think it would be an ideal way for middle grade students to learn the history of the struggle for equal rights and freedoms of black Americans during the time. Rappaport intersperses facts about laws and court cases with stories about famous Americans participating in the struggle.

Some of the people she highlights include:

Fredrick Douglas - He rejoiced with the choir at Boston’s Tremont Temple when the Emancipation Proclamation was announced on January 1, 1863.

Jane Kemper - In Maryland ten months later slaves were freed but many white former owners kidnapped and hid black children from their now-free parents. Jane snuck back to her former master’s root cellar and freed her four children in the dead of night. It was not until 1867 that the Supreme Court struck down the apprenticeship laws that allowed as many as ten thousand black children to be held against their parent’s wishes.

Booker T. Washington – He was nine years old when his family was freed from slavery on the plantation. He grew up to establish a school in Tuskegee, Alabama that became the Tuskegee Institute. He was known for his moderate speeches bringing white and black together. He was greatly praised by white people but criticized by many blacks as being too accommodating.

Harriet Postle – In May 1866 white Southerners had written laws such as the Black Codes restricting the rights of blacks. The KKK was riding to terrorize and murder blacks. Harriet Postle showed great courage in hiding her husband from the Klan and protecting her children at her own expense.

John Solomon Lewis – He lead his family and friends across the Mississippi river from Louisiana to Kansas to start a new life. The ship’s captain refused them passage until Lewis insisted that as veteran of the Union army he knew his rights and would sue for damages if denied. The captain gave way.

Ida B. Wells – Ms. Wells successfully challenged segregated trains, insisting that she be allowed to sit in the ladies coach with white women. She was forcibly removed from trains a couple of times, sued and was granted monetary damage awards. She took her legal battle all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which ruled against her. She continued to fight “separate but equal” rules and spoke against injustice her entire life. She wrote about lynchings as a newspaper reporter in Memphis. She had her office ransacked and her life threatened but that did not stop her.

Langston Hughes – poet of the Harlem Renaissance in the 20s. He spoke of the segregation and racism of the North. He wrote many poems celebrating the beauty, strength, hopes and dreams of black people.

Jackie Robinson – He played baseball for the Brooklyn dodgers for ten years, breaking the color line. In spite of the taunting and harassment of many he played well and was named National League Rookie of the Year in 1947.

Thurgood Marshall – The lawyer who spoke to the Supreme Court in 1952 arguing the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education. He successfully convinced them that separate was not equal education, winning the landmark decision.

None of this history is easy to read. I think far too many white people have never heard these tales and so our perspective on our own history is sorely skewed. In my study of the Reconstruction Era as a young student I don’t believe I was given the full picture. I think even as an adult I need to read and reread this history. Over at Race Changers last week the theme was on learning about lynching. I didn’t follow the links given there because I thought it would be too horrible for me to fully grasp. This truly is one of the most shameful periods in American history. Maybe it says something about me and why I am a children’s librarian, that I need to learn the hardest truths from a child’s level of instruction. I find that this volume is a good way to begin to catch up on the truths that have so long been obscured.

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