Let’s get one thing straight. I did not go to school during the Revolutionary War. No, not even grade school. Everything I know about that time period, I learned in school (except whatever I picked up in the movies). Both grammar and high schools in the 1950’s and 60’s offered comprehensive courses in United States history, if by comprehensive we accept that United States history was made by white, Christian, men (except for Betsy Ross, but a man told her what to do).
In the small grammar school I attended, there was one African-American student. My high school experience was different, and for the first three years I attended a rural high school that served 13 towns. Kids tended to hang with kids they lived near; friendships were forged at bus stops. Neighborhoods were pretty homogeneous, so most kids were friends with people who were the same race and class as they.
Somehow I managed to end up in a multicultural group of misfits who rode the “detention” bus, which was actually the bus for juvenile delinquents and athletes. In those days that would have been two separate groups. Color didn’t put me in the back of the bus, proclivity did. My family moved right before my senior year, and I ended up in the first school system to voluntarily integrate (in the early 60s). Nevertheless, high school history lessons were as white and male as grammar school’s were.
America’s Black Founders by Nancy I. Sanders is a combination of history and activities designed to teach children about the role of black people — men and women — in early America. It begins with the story of Richard Allen, a seven-year-old boy who was sold as a slave, traces his life, and fittingly ends with his death in his 70s. America’s Black Founders is filled with photographs and drawings, portraits and illustrations of many black people who helped pour the foundation of America, as well as reproductions of documents and scores of other pictures, modern and historic. It is a rich, photographic treasury of our past.
Readers are introduced to one memorable person after another, many of whom they have never heard. Wealthy sailmaker James Forten, patriot Prince Estabrook, Louisiana farmer and land-owner Marie-Therese Coincoin Metoyer, and founder of the Sunday School Movement Catherine “Katy” Ferguson are but a few of the historic figures profiled. Many of these people were influential members of their communities; some influenced our nation and society. A number were associated with more famous figures such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. It’s sad to think that few of these people have appeared in history textbooks. Knowing that fifty years of history have been squeezed in since I was a lass, I doubt that they are getting all that much press now.
Certainly America’s Black Founders is a terrific teaching tool for Black History Month, but its appeal is much greater. This is a fascinating collection of vignettes which Sanders has fashioned for readers of all ages. There are relatively few people who couldn’t learn something new and interesting within its pages.
Were that not enough, there are 21 activities designed to introduce readers to facets of subjects’ lives, from stuffing a straw mattress to publishing a newspaper. Crafters will enjoy making a clay pot, weaving a fanner, or making a stamp. Artists can “Draw a Political Cartoon” and “Paint a Historic Picture”; writers can “Write a New Verse for ‘Yankee Doodle’” and “Pen a Patriotic Poem”; and cooks can “Bake Firecakes,” “Cook Pepper Pot Soup,” and “Make Homemade Salt.” In addition, there are suggestions for young movers and shakers: “Write a Government Official,” “Write a Petition,” and “Form a Literary Society.” There are activities appropriate for every age level that would make great classroom projects, but can also be done at home.
America’s Black Founders is a very attractive, large format paperback — an appropriate gift for both children and families. For those interested in history, it is educational without being pedantic. For those of us with ADD, it doesn’t need to be read from beginning to end; leaf through it, stopping here and there, and you will be hooked. No matter how little reading time you have, you have enough time to read these profiles, a little at a time.
Bottom Line: Would I buy America’s Black Founders? Enthusiastically, yes.