There are a number of reasons to teach children about slavery, even besides the fact that it played such a large role in the history of the world and in the U.S. in particular. Teaching this history can show children that injustices can be corrected and change is possible. They can gain a new appreciation for how far America came from a country in which African-Americans were compelled to build the White House for their white oppressors to a country in which African-Americans lived in the White House. Most importantly, learning about slavery provides an opportunity to discuss morality, compassion, and the question of “just” laws versus “unjust” laws.
There are also moments to celebrate, from those who worked to better their lives against the worst kind of odds, to the brave souls who escaped, and to those who helped them.
As Kadir Nelson wrote in his award-winning book Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans:
“Most folks my age and complexion don’t speak much about the past. Sometimes it’s just too hard to talk about – nothing we like to share with you young folk. No parent wants to tell a child that he was once a slave and made to do another man’s bidding. Or that she had to swallow her pride and take what she was given, even though she knew it wasn’t fair. Our story is chock-full of things like this. Things that might make you cringe, or feel angry. But there are also parts that will make you proud, or even laugh a little. You gotta take the good with the bad, I guess. You have to know where you come from so you can move forward.”
Conflicts over skin color still exist. Let’s not ignore the elephant in the room, but let’s learn from it. Here are some possible resources.
Charles R. Smith, Jr. (Author), Floyd Cooper (Illustrator)
The original White House in Washington, D.C. was built in the 1790s with the help of slaves rented from nearby plantations. The irony of the Founding Fathers who, in search of liberty and justice for all, utilized slaves to achieve it, is a subtle undercurrent in this poetic history of the construction of the new symbol of Free America.
Published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2013
Doreen Rappaport (Author), Shane W. Evans (Illustrator)
Excellent collection of the general history of slavery, individual stories and songs, all illustrated by bold oil paintings. Examples of selections include the story of Olaudah Equiano’s survival through the Middle Passage, Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad, and Frederick Douglass’s brave defiance of his vicious master.
A time line at the back of the book summarizes the main events of slavery in the U.S. There is also a list of sources and an index.
Published by Candlewick Press, 2002
Gloria Whelan (Author), Mike Benny (Illustrator)
The Listeners tells a story of what life was like for children under slavery, but in a way that will not scare young children.
Young Ella May and her friends, Bobby and Sue, pick cotton all day. Their most important work, however, begins at night, when they hide under their master’s window, listen for news and information, and run back to the slaves’ quarters to report it. In this way, the adults know what to expect and how to deal with it. This book has no scenes of horror. Clearly slaves are not free, but young readers will not be burdened with nightmarish scenes sometimes common to slavery.
There are also happy moments in the book back at the slave cabins: the joy of family and food and community; dancing to music heard from the master’s house, and the news that Abraham Lincoln has been elected to be President of the United States.
Published by Sleeping Bear Press, 2010
Shane V. Evans (Author and Illustrator)
This is absolutely the best book for young kids I have seen for introducing slavery or indeed, any struggle for freedom from oppression. Most of the pages have just a few words, but they are full of power: “The fear.” “We run.” “Others help.” “Some don’t make it.” “We are tired.”
The illustrations are as striking as the text. It starts out in darkness, and when the escapees reach freedom, the sun comes up, illuminating joy on the faces that had remained hidden in the night.
Published by Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of Macmillan, 2011
Ellen Levine (Author), Kadir Nelson (Illustrator)
With fabulous illustrations by Kadir Nelson, this book tells the story of Henry Brown, who, in 1849, escaped from slavery by having himself mailed to Philadelphia. Henry traveled 350 miles from Richmond, Virginia, in a nail-biting trip that took twenty-seven hours. Henry “Box” Brown became one of the most famous escaped slaves and his story remains incredibly inspirational.
Both the author and the illustrator have won many awards. This book is excellent in every respect.
Published by Scholastic Press, 2007
Glenda Armand (Author), Colin Bootman (Illustrator)
I can’t articulate adequately what a good book this is. It is based on the true story of the mother of Frederick Douglass, who is separated from her son because of slavery by twelve miles. She doesn’t stop that from letting her see him though, and sometimes makes the trip up and back in one night, just so she can be with him. In the book, she and Frederick go through a ritual in which she describes for him her thoughts during each mile, and how much she loves him, and her faith that one day they will be free and live together: “There will be no slaves or masters. No one will own us.”
This beautiful book is illustrated by candlelit paintings and express the love between Frederick and his mother. Highly recommended!
Published by Lee & Low Books, 2013
Janet Halfmann (Author), Duane Smith (Illustrator)
Robert Smalls, a slave used by Confederates in Charleston, South Carolina during the Civil War to pilot the steamship Planter, committed an amazingly daring and brave act to win freedom for himself and his family. In the early morning hours in May, 1862, the white captain and crew of Planter were ashore for the night contrary to orders. The ship was loaded with arms for rebel forts. At around 3 a.m., Smalls collected his wife, children, and twelve other slaves, and commandeered the vessel. He disguised himself as the captain (even assuming the captain’s stance), guided the ship out of the harbor, and surrendered to Union forces.
Union press hailed Smalls as a national hero, calling the ship “the first trophy from Fort Sumter.” A Congressional bill signed by President Lincoln awarded prize money to Smalls, which he used to purchase land near his birthplace in South Carolina.
This story will amaze and inspire you.
Published by Lee & Low Books, 2008
Doreen Rappaport (Author), Bryan Collier (Illustrator)
This book relates the true story of John Parker, a slave who learned the trade of iron molding and saved enough money to buy his own freedom. He made his way to Ohio and went into business for himself, becoming wealthy. But he never forgot where he came from. At night, he helped slaves from Kentucky escape across the river to freedom in Ohio. He guided hundreds of slaves, despite a $1,000 bounty placed on his head by slaveholders. The collage-and-watercolor illustrations add to the drama of his story.
Published by Jump at the Sun/Hyperion Books for Children, an imprint of the Disney Book Group, 2000
Carole Boston Weatherford (Author), Kadir Nelson (Illustrator)
Harriet Tubman’s escape to freedom from slavery and her role in helping others to escape via the “underground railroad” is told in terms of the religious faith that inspired and sustained her. The poetic text (“Lord, don’t let nobody turn me ’round”) and gorgeous pictures by Kadir Nelson highlight her struggle (especially in the wonderfully painted facial expressions) and show how her faith helped her overcome the most harrowing of circumstances.
Published by Jump at the Sun/Hyperion Books for Children, an imprint of the Disney Book Group, 2006
Carole Boston Weatherford (Author), R. Gregory Christie (Illustrator)
In Louisiana, slaves had a day off from work on Sundays. In New Orleans, after 1817, they could only gather in one place on this day, an open field known as Congo Square. There, the slaves could play African music, dance, play, and sing. As the author says in an Afterword, “For a few hours every Sunday, Congo Square gave slaves a taste of freedom.”
This book has much to recommend it: the story will teach children some of the many things slaves were required to do. Moreover, the juxtaposition of the harshness of slavery with the joy expressed on (half)days of freedom certainly illustrates – both in words and pictures, how absurd was the outrageous canard that slaves were “happy.” Finally, the way Christie changes the lines and colors of his art can show children how important and effective images are in affecting perception.
Both the author and the illustrator have garnered many awards.
Published by Little Bee Books, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing Group, 2016
Doreen Rappaport (Author), London Ladd (Illustrator)
After Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery, he went on to educate himself and take a prominent role on the national stage during the time of Lincoln, the Civil War, and the struggle for black suffrage that followed. The author incorporates quotations from Frederick Douglass’s into this biography for children, which showcases how poetic and stirring Douglass could be.
Published by Jump at the Sun, an imprint of Disney Book Group, 2015
Judith and Dennis Fradin (Authors), Eric Velasquez (Illustrator)
This book tells the true story of three slaves from Kentucky – John Price, his cousin Dinah, and his friend Frank – who crossed the Ohio River to freedom in Ohio, where slavery was outlawed. But they couldn’t rest easy: part of the compromise legislation of 1850 was a toughening of the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slave owners to capture and return runaways from anywhere in the U.S. Aiding slaves was made a federal crime. But the citizens of Oberlin, Ohio decided that helping the slaves was the only moral choice.
Published by Walker Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013
Ashley Bryan (Author and Illustrator)
The author reports in an Afterword that he came across a collection of slave-related documents that included an “estate sale” of eleven slaves (along with cows, hogs, and cotton). Since the slaves were only referred to by gender and age, he decided he wanted to create stories for them and give them voices.
He introduces each slave by a picture he has imagined of the slave, noting his or her age, price. Then the slaves, in free-verse first-person narrative, tell the roles they play on the estate. The next page after each introduction imagines the dreams of that slave, which are in stark contrast to what a slave is allowed to do, and which always end with the dream of freedom.
Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2016
Marfé Ferguson Delano (author) Lori Epstein (photographer)
This well-researched examination of George Washington’s evolving attitudes on slavery is accompanied by descriptions of what kinds of slaves he had and how they lived.