Throughout history, people have been on the move for a better life.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford asked all Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Since then, every American President has designated February as Black History Month.
Black history is full of movement. In the late 1800s and 1900s, six million African Americans left the rural south for cities in the north and west. This period has been called the Great Migration. As Lesa Cline-Ransome so eloquently puts it, these families are “running from and running to at the same time.” Running from hardship – and dreaming of a better life in their new home.
As an immigrant, I’m familiar with the emotions of leaving one home for another. Here’s a poem I wrote a few years ago:
First grade in Warsaw,
Third grade in Haifa,
new place to live.
Fourth grade – Chicago,
another new land.
Kids talk to me, but
I don’t understand.
Fifth grade, once more
another new school –
they call me a fool.
In eighth grade we move
to upstate New York.
They say, “You ain’t Jewish
because you eat pork.”
So many changes,
many new places.
So many people,
always new faces.
My work-in-progress, They Came to Vote, is about a black family moving to the Timbuctoo settlement in the northern Adirondack mountains, where abolitionist and philanthropist Gerrit Smith gave land to black homesteaders. This helped them become self-sufficient, allowed black men to vote, and kept them safe from racist atrocities and bounty hunters who kidnapped blacks and sold them back into slavery.
Two other books for young readers about black families relocating are The Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome (Holiday House, 2020, 48 p.) and Follow Me Down to Nicodemus Town by A. LaFaye and Nicole Tadgell (Albert Whitman, 2019, 32 p.)
In the Overground Railroad, lyrical language and bold art depict the story of one family leaving the oppressive South for a new life in the North. Family, friends, and everything that was familiar was left behind. On the train, Ruthie reads the autobiography of Frederick Douglass to her mom. His journey north to escape slavery gives her courage and hope.
Follow Me Down to Nicodemus Town introduces the Exodusters and explores a part of pioneer history that needs to be better known. Dede and her family work hard to buy their way out of sharecropping. After a long day’s work on the farm, Papa builds furniture and Mama sews dresses. Little Dede shines shoes at the railroad station. Soft tones and fluid lines in the illustrations convey the family’s hope for a new life in Kansas.
Both of these historical fiction picture books introduce an important piece of American history that is often overlooked. Both share courage and hope as Dede and Ruthie with their families flee the oppressive sharecropping system of post-civil war American South. Teachers and parents can use these as a springboard to learning.