Happy Birthday!

Activities for African American History Month
Grade Level

Happy Birthday (Grades K-3)

In establishing Negro History Week (now African American History Month) in the month of February, Carter Woodson paid tribute to Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln -- both born in February and both instrumental in abolishing slavery. Celebrate Black History Month by planning a birthday party for other influential African Americans born in February. Poet Langston Hughes, NAACP cofounder W.E.B. DuBois and baseball great Hank Aaron are just a few of those you might honor. Involve students in planning the celebration. Ideas to consider include:

  • Create fitting invitations, for example, ones that picture individuals you are honoring and highlight their accomplishments. Invite parents, staff and community members to celebrate and learn with you.
  • Write and present speeches or dramatizations that focus on each person's contributions.
  • Guide guests in a virtual tour of African American history. Use the sites listed in Resources to plan your itinerary.
  • Give a "present," in the form of something the class can do to further Carter Woodson's cause of racial harmony.


Local Heroes (Grades K-3)

Ramon Price of the DuSable Museum talks about restoring the missing pages of American history. Are there any "missing pages" in the history of your own community? Invite local historians, archivists, and civic leaders with ties to or knowledge of the history and contributions of African Americans in your community to speak to your class. Based on what students discover in these presentations, they may want to initiate a school- or community-wide education campaign. For example, students may want to compose a class letter for the local newspaper sharing what they've learned about local African American heroes or create informational posters to display around your school or in local establishments.


The Whole Story (Grades 4-6)

One of Carter Woodson's goals in establishing Negro History Week (now African American History Month) was to educate others about the contributions of African Americans. In The Mis-Education of the Negro, Woodson wrote about a "new program":

The leading facts of the history of the world should be studied by all ... hold on to the real facts of history as they are, but complete such knowledge by studying also the history of races and nations which have been purposely ignored. ... We would not underestimate the achievements of the captains of industry who in the commercial expansion of the modern world have produced the wealth necessary to ease and comfort; but we would give credit to the Negro who so largely supplied the demand for labor by which these things have been accomplished. ... We would not learn less of George Washington. ... but we would learn something also of the 3,000 Negro soldiers of the American Revolution who helped to make this 'Father of our Country' possible. ... We would not neglect to appreciate the unusual contribution of Thomas Jefferson to freedom and democracy; but we would invite attention also to two of his outstanding contemporaries, Phillis Wheatley, the writer of interesting verse, and Benjamin Baneker, the mathematician, astronomer, and advocate of a world peace plan set forth in 1793 with the vital principles of Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations.

Share this book excerpt with students, then ask them to design and conduct a survey to learn more about people's level of awareness of influential African Americans, as well as key moments and important issues in African American history. (Find out how much you know first by taking the African American History Challenge at Bright Moments.)

Use the data to prepare a campaign to promote Woodson's goals in your school and local community. Encourage students to move beyond individuals to examine the bigger picture: What does an individual's contribution mean in the context of the African American struggle? Posters and dramatizations are a couple of ways students can share information.


Athletes, Artists, Inventors and More (Grades 4-6)

As a follow-up to the activity above, you may want to ask students to write a biography of an African American man or woman (or youth!) that they admire. Read students the picture-book biography Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's Fastest Woman (Harcourt Brace, 1996) as a model. In this book, author Kathleen Krull tells the remarkable story of Wilma Rudolph, who, after a crippling childhood illness, wasn't expected to walk again. She persevered -- and after years of hard work went on to become the first American woman to win three gold medals at a single Olympics.

To help students get started writing biographies, Kathleen Krull suggests the storytelling tips below. Krull is the author of Bridges to Change: How Kids Live on a South Carolina Island (Lodestar, 1995), a photoessay that intertwines issues such as slavery with a look at the everyday lives of two African American children; Lives of the Athletes: Thrills, Spills ... and What the Neighbors Thought (Harcourt Brace, 1996), and three previous books in the Lives Of series.

  • Are you nosy? This is the key to writing a biography. Pick a person you'd love to know better -- someone you really like. The more passion you have for your subject, the more energy you'll spend, and the better your biography will be.
  • Make a list of nosy questions. If the person you pick is someone you know personally, conduct an interview. Take notes and listen carefully -- you'll learn more than you could have imagined.
  • If you choose someone you don't know -- your favorite genius in the creative arts (that includes musicians), an athlete or a history-maker -- gather facts from encyclopedias, newspapers and magazines, biographies, and Internet searches. Your librarian can really help.
  • After you've soaked up the information, don't use it all. Be very selective. Use only the most interesting stuff, plus the facts that get you from beginning to middle to end.



Web Sites

The following web sites are rich with teaching and learning materials. Bookmark the sites before letting them lead you to more.

http://lcweb.loc.gov/exhibits Click on The African American Mosaic to bring the Library of Congress to your classroom. Plan on settling in at the Manuscript Reading Room where you can view source documents.

http://www.eb.com Britannica Online 98's monthly "Spotlights" include The Britannica Guide to Black History. View video clips of civil rights demonstrations, hear Martin Luther King deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech, see Michael Jordan in action, and more. Price: $85/year (or $8.50/month); free trials available.

http://www.cnn.com/EVENTS/1997/bhm/ Here you'll find profiles of African Americans in the arts and sciences, a virtual tour of the civil rights movement and links to related sites. For links to more related sites go to http://www.seattletimes.com/mlk/index.html.



Letters from a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs by Mary E. Lyons (Atheneum, 1992). The author's letter format brings time and place to life to tell the extraordinary story of an enslaved child determined to read, write and live free.

The National Civil Rights Movement Celebrates Everyday People by Alice Faye Duncan (Bridgewater Books, 1995). Tour the National Civil Rights Museum (formerly the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed) with this photo essay.

Oh, Freedom! Kids Talk About the Civil Rights Movement with the People Who Made It Happen. Forward by Rosa Parks (Knopf, 1997). Transcripts of interviews conducted by children will inspire your students to conduct their own.

Smoky Night by Eve Bunting (Harcourt Brace, 1994). In this Caldecott Award winner inspired by the 1992 Los Angeles riots, two cats and a child show us how people who don't get along can come together.

They Had a Dream by Jules Archer (Puffin, 1993). Portraits of four who fought for equal rights reveal the struggle of Blacks in America.



Encyclopaedia Britannica Profiles Black History (Encyclopaedia Britannica): This comprehensive CD-ROM brings the lives and works of African American history-makers to life through video and audio clips, photos, biographies and more. ($29.95). For information call (800) 747-8503 or go to Encyclopedia Britannica Online.


Black History Month Learning Resource Package: This kit, published each year by the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH), is designed to help you integrate African American History Month into your curriculum. The kit includes a collage poster by Tom Feelings; games, activities and other teaching tools; essays on pioneers in African American business; and more. ($75, includes shipping and handling) For more information call (202) 667-2822.

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