Every February, we are given the special opportunity to recognize and celebrate the unique and impactful contributions of Black leaders in history. From the Civil Rights Movement to scientific discoveries to artistic accomplishments and social reform, there are so many critically important contributions to study as we celebrate Black History Month with our students. Of course, this is not the only time that we celebrate these contributions, but February gives us the opportunity to take a closer look and highlight the importance of Black leaders in history.
Black Leaders in History to Celebrate
While there are too many important Black history leaders to put in a list, here are just a few ideas of Black leaders in history that can be studied and celebrated throughout Black History Month.
Rosa Parks, 1913-2005
February 4th, the birthdate of Rosa Parks, is a great day to dedicate to learning about Rosa Parks. On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat for a white man that boarded the bus she was on. She was arrested for failing to obey the driver’s seat assignments. This led to the Montgomery bus boycott. This opens the door to teach students what a boycott is and, more specifically, about non-violent civil disobedience. Brainpop and Brainpop Jr. both have excellent videos for a variety of age groups that can introduce students to Rosa Parks and her major contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.
Harriet Tubman, 1822-1913
Some say Harriett Tubman led as many as 300 slaves to freedom within 10 years. Her life’s work was about risking her own life to save others. A great way to celebrate Harriet Tubman’s life is to learn about the Underground Railroad. Take this opportunity to help students understand the risks involved for Tubman as she traveled back and forth. For older students, mapping stops on the Underground Railroad is a great activity that can really bring historic events to life.
Martin Luther King Jr., 1929-1968
Traditionally, a great deal of time is spent in January to honor and recognize the achievements and contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. However, there is not enough time in one unit of study to examine the impact of Dr. King’s legacy. Therefore, when studying Black leaders in history during the month of February, one cannot overlook how so many other Black leaders in history either led to or resulted from the accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Examine in more detail the impact that he had and continues to have on our society.
Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895
Born into slavery, Douglass went on to escape and become a well-known, influential abolitionist. He was an author and a public speaker who used his gifts and talents to further the cause of freedom. His life and his story are important and significant for any grade level to examine. However, with older students, a study of the writings of Frederick Douglass makes for an incredibly eye-opening glimpse into slavery.
Maya Angelou, 1928-2014
As an American poet, Angelou has been one of the most prominent and influential figures of the last century. This would be a great opportunity to integrate a study of poetry by reading her works. You could also incorporate the poetry of Langston Hughes, another great African-American poet.
Ruby Bridges, 1954 –
An American Civil Rights activist, Bridges was the first African-American child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana in 1960. As you study the struggles of Ruby Bridges and others that followed her in desegregation, you can watch actual interviews with her, helping students to make the connection to someone living today that dealt with issues such as these. This can help to bring the history to life for students.
Activities to Recognize Black Leaders
Decorate Your Classroom
Take the opportunity to integrate some art activities into your Black History Month study. Allow students to create posters and murals highlighting some of the leaders that have been studied throughout the month. You can also display poetry and art from famous African-American artists.
Living Book Reports
Have a day to celebrate biographies of Black leaders in history by having a day of living book reports. Assign each student a different biography, appropriate for your given grade level, about a Black leader in history. You can have them prepare a presentation to give to the class or invited guests such as family members. Students can dress as the person they are presenting. Younger students really enjoy this!
Take a virtual tour of museums that feature accomplishments of Black leaders in history. You can virtually explore museums such as Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture, The Museum of African-American Art, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, etc.
Take a day to celebrate great African-American poets in history. Read and perform poetry. After studying some of the poetry, give students the opportunity to write some of their own, perhaps using some Black leaders in history or civil rights events as inspiration.
Discussion of Social Injustice
Take this opportunity to discuss both past and current issues involving social injustice. Students can work in groups to problem-solve and debate issues and ways to improve social injustices.
Celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Take a whole day to learn about and reflect on the contributions and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Listen to and study his “I Have a Dream” speech, analyzing his words and discussing meaning. Younger students can make a birthday card for Dr. King. Regardless of age or grade level, you can find wonderful biographies on Dr. King. You could even have a classroom or school “parade” in celebration of Dr. King and the impact he has had on society.
Music of Black History
Research how music has been used as a tool to communicate beliefs, victories, and struggles throughout history in the fight for freedom and equality. Listen to some of these songs and discuss the context in which they were written.
During Black History Month, take time to highlight some of these incredible Americans and their sacrifices, which helped to make this country a better place for all.