African American Heritage

Ages 4-8

Why I Wrote This Guide

 Curator Rebekah K.

Curator Rebekah K.

As a young person, I had a dream of teaching, not for the sake of putting information into the minds of young people; but, for the sake of nurturing the minds they have. I dreamed of teaching African American students. I dreamed of a future for them, where they could dream great dreams, plan their life’s map, and succeed in making the world a better place for others. Instead, I live and teach in a multi-cultural community. I dream of the future for all of my students. I dream of a future where they are compassionate, empathetic, and choose to look at life from everyone’s viewpoint. I dream of a future where they dream great dreams, chart their own course, and succeed. I dream of a future where my students make the world a better place for others. I know they all make the world a better place for me and they are my heroes. Who are your heroes? My hope is that some of my Zoobean favorites for exploring the rich heritage of African American heroes will become some of your heroes, too.

Introduction to African American Heritage

For an introduction to leaders, innovators, and heroes, watch The ABCs of Black History.

Before Viewing: Ask your child “What makes someone great?” or “What makes someone a hero?” You can prompt the conversation by sharing a story about someone who is your hero. If your child is having difficulty answering a question this abstract, begin by asking, “Who is your hero?” Whether it’s a fictional, historical, or real life hero, accept your child’s answer and talk about heroes using his or her current favorite. For example, you could say, “Wow! I never knew Captain Universe, or your art teacher, was your hero. Tell me all about this person.” Listen, really listen, to what your child has to say and you will hear what he or she thinks makes someone a hero. Maybe you’ll hear about someone who showed kindness or treated him or her with respect. After listening, you can introduce the video by saying, “This person or character is your hero because of who he or she is and because of what he or she has done. There are lots of amazing people who are heroes. Let’s watch this video and see what makes these men and women heroes.”

Interactive Viewing: Pull out paper or a reading journal and pencils or crayons. Tell your child this is to draw or write whatever he or she is interested in or wants to remember. Ask him or her to tell you when to pause the video. Take as much time as needed to view, pause, and write or draw.
After Viewing: Start a conversation about the people, places, and things in this video by asking a few questions. For example, “What was the most interesting thing you learned from this video?” “Who did you already know about and who was a new person to you?” and “Who in this video would you like to learn more about?”
Plan time to read more about some of the people your child is intrigued by and people you want to introduce your child to. A few of the people in the video are featured in this guide.

Of Thee I Sing by Barack Obama

Read President Obama’s letter to his daughters as he tells them about Americans who have impacted not only their fields but also influenced America. These are the brief stories of thirteen Americans who dreamed they could succeed. I love the lyrical qualities of the text and the variety of American heroes. Are any of them your heroes? (Zoobean)

Before Reading Look at the cover of the book, consider covering the title, and ask your child, “What or who do you think this book will be about?” and “What title would you give it?” Open the book and look at the illustrations without reading it and ask your child, “What do these pictures tell us about this book?” and “The title of this book is ‘Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters.’ Who will these letters be about?” Before reading, you may want to watch this short interview with the artist, Loren Long, to hear him talk about his hope that your child will dream of all he or she can do, too.

Interactive Reading Stop regularly to talk to your child about what you see in him or her. If he or she is creative, whether it is in play or in academics, talk about what you have noticed. You can begin by saying, “I noticed the way you _____ (drew, made a marble run out of cardboard, wrote, solved a problem, etc.). I thought it was very creative. You thought it through, made a plan, and accomplished something very cool. What was the most difficult part of that task?” “What helped you with the difficult part?” and “What are you going to work on next?”

After Reading

Choose some people and their areas of influence to learn more about. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr., featured in both The ABCs of Black History and in Of Thee I Sing, influenced the entire Civil Rights Movement. You could read more about Martin Luther King, Jr. and about the Civil Rights Movement.  You could also watch short videos on the YouTube Channel Because of Them We Can to introduce your child to a short dramatization about key events in the lives of Bessie Coleman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali, among others.

As you read more about the life of an individual, ask what this person dreamed of. Was it a changed world? Was it the protection of civil rights? Was it compassion?

Then ask, “What did he or she do and say to make this possible?” “How was he or she successful?” and “How has this person made the world a better place?”

Did you Know?
Estavanico, also known as Little Stephan, explored the area that is now Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. He was from North Africa where he had been sold as a slave. In the 1500’s, he travelled with Portuguese explorers to Cuba and Florida. Estavanico was captured and held captive in Texas for four years. After Estavanico and the men he was with escaped, they traveled across Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona on their way to Mexico. When they reached Mexico City, the viceroy sent Estavanico on an expedition to find the Seven Cities of Cibola. Estavanico explored New Mexico and Arizona before he died. You can read more about Estavanico on

Academic Kids Encyclopedia.

Talk About It

African American history encompasses the lives of men and women from the crimes of slavery and segregation to the joys of success and influence. Professor John McCluskey Jr. from Indiana University said in an interview with the Herald-Times in February of 2014, “We re-visit slavery because it is an ongoing dialogue within ourselves as a nation. Its resolution gave us one of our greatest presidents, a great cost in lives and deep scars regionally and racially. It cannot be erased. To encounter it means to encounter the best and the worst. At its base, to re-examine that past is to re-examine the basic question of what does it mean to be human and civilized? We can learn much about ourselves by asking that question every day, not just during chilly Februarys.” Sadly, slavery came to North America with the earliest Europeans to explore and settle. Estavanico was a slave in the 1500’s. Slaves were brought to the Virginia Colony in 1619. A slave is someone who is owned by another person and is forced to obey them. Parenting Magazine provided 5 Tips for Talking About Racism With Kids. Many of these same tips apply to conversations about all slavery. Don’t be afraid to talk about slavery. While we don’t want to say the wrong thing, we don’t want to avoid conversations about history, facts that have shaped our world, and people who were treated as property. Parenting Magazine suggests looking for teaching moments.

As you explore the lives of many African Americans, you can share some of the person’s family history that included slavery. It is important to talk about all of the influences that helped people work toward their own better future. I use the entire section on age-appropriate messages in my ESL classroom as I find the need to use messages that are appropriate to my student’s understanding. Parenting Magazine says, “use concrete examples… Since even young children can understand when something is unfair, you can break down slavery (or segregation) for them.” Begin by explaining that slavery is one person owning another, holding them captive, and making them obey them. Slaves have to work without pay. You can ask, “Would it be fair if my boss made me work and didn’t pay me for it?” If your child has difficulty thinking through his or her answer you can ask a follow-up question such as, “If I go to work and don’t get paid, we won’t have any money. What do we buy with our money?” Give your child time to talk about the things, like food and clothes, that you buy with money, then ask, “If I work and don’t get paid, we cannot buy food and clothes. Is that fair?” Explain that slaves were made to work but did not get paid for it, then ask, “If slaves were made to work and did not get paid for it, is that fair?” You can continue this kind of conversation as far as your child is interested and able to understand.

Author, Dr. Beverly Tatum, suggests highlighting the way people have worked together by showing that one people group “are not all bad or all victims.” She says we can look at examples of people working to end slavery and enslaved people resisting “mistreatment by running away and helping others escape.”

The Leadership Conference reminds us that we can look to leaders to end civil rights abuses; but, we can also do our part to end civil rights abuses. One of the suggestions is to model a good example and to take the next step of to talking about issues of prejudice with our children. If we don’t proactively address bias, our children may learn the wrong messages from others.

One place to begin exploring African American History and conversations about men and women who fulfilled their dreams is TIME For Kids Black History Month edition. Use the interactive timeline, Then to Now, to see events and individuals in context of all of African American history. As you read about the lives of men and women, check the Then and Now Timeline to see where these individuals or events fit in the timeline. You and your child may want to make your own timeline of family or African American history.

 Source: Time for Kids

Source: Time for Kids

Make Your Own Timeline


  • card stock or construction paper

  • ruler or straight edge

  • pens, pencils, and markers

  • pictures from magazines or the family photo box

  • glue stick

  • hole punch

  • string or yarn

What to Do

  • Create one card for each event or individual, including names, dates, and locations

  • Draw pictures or attach pictures for each event or individual

  • Place events in chronological order, making a game out of it by asking, “Which year comes first?” or “Which person was born first?”

  • Punch holes in the top of each card and string yarn through the holes

  • Display in your reading area and add event cards to the timeline as needed

America was very slow about bringing an end to slavery. In 1787, slavery was made illegal in the new Northwest Territory; but, slaves were still brought from Africa to North America until 1808. After that, it would be another 57 years until slavery was outlawed in the United States by the 13th Amendment.

Rather than waiting for slavery to end, some brave men and women dreamed of a world with no slavery. In 1791, Benjamin Banneker wrote a letter to then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. In his letter, Benjamin Banneker wrote that Jefferson was guility of the crime of slavery. Banneker said that it was a pity that Jefferson could write that “all men are created equal,” and that all men had the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” while holding people in captivity.

Dear Benjamin Banneker by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Benjamin Banneker grew up working beside his parents on a tobacco farm in Maryland. His grandmother taught him to read and write. I can’t help but think she instilled in him a desire to dream, learn, question, and find answers. Benjamin dreamed of the sun, and the moon, and the stars in the sky. At the same time, Benjamin Banneker dreamed of freedom for all people in America. Benjamin Banneker did something about the slavery he saw. (Zoobean)

Before Reading Head outside and watch the clouds and the sun or the moon and the stars. Ask your child, “Can you tell what time it is by looking at the sun in the sky?” Explain that before everyone had watches, because they were expensive, people would look at the sun to tell what time it was. When the sun is in the east, it is morning. When the sun is directly overhead, it is noon, and when the sun is in the west, it is evening. Explain that this is because the earth is turning as it moves around the sun. If you go out a few nights in a row, talk about the moon and stars. What they look like, the changing shape of the moon, and its position in the sky. Tell your child that a man named Benjamin Banneker did the same thing over 200 years ago. He taught himself astronomy and went outside to study the sky.

After Reading Head back outside to be an astronomer and estimate the size of the moon. This requires a little math know-how. The size of the hole you punch will represent the size of the moon. The distance on the ruler will represent the distance to the moon, which is 239,000 miles or 384,400 km.

What You Will Need:

  • a 3x5 card

  • a ruler

  • a hole punch

  • scissors

  • a calculator

  • nature journal


What to Do:

  • Punch a hole in the top, center of the card

  • Cut a slot near the bottom of the card

  • Slide the ruler into the slot

  • Set the ruler against your cheek

  • Look at the moon, pointing the ruler toward the moon

  • Slide the card along the ruler until you see only the moon through the hole

  • Note the marking the card sits on when the moon fills the hole

  • Record what you did, how you did it, and your observations in your nature journal


Do the Math:

Diameter of the hole

________________    X     Distance from the Earth to the Moon = Diameter of the Moon

Distance on ruler                    (239,000 miles)


Sources: Adapted from The National STEM Center and UC Berkeley

This UC Berkeley page teaches you how to make a pinhole viewer to measure the size of the sun or moon.

 Source: UC Bekeley

Source: UC Bekeley

Use an app like Star Walk Kids -- Astronomy for Children to identify stars and constellations in the night sky. Talk about what you’re seeing and how these are the same things Benjamin Banneker was looking at over 200 years ago.

Follow up with some screen time fun by playing a space shape matching game, memory game, or puzzle.

A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet by Kathryn Lasky

Kidnapped in Africa, transported to the American colonies, and sold as a slave to the Wheatley family, Phillis’ moving story differed from that of many slaves. Phillis learned to read and write and dreamed of writing poetry. She became famous for being the first published African-American female poet. This work of historical fiction could be read over the course of a few readings with younger children. (Zoobean)

Interactive Reading: Ask questions to make connections and for understanding. Pause in your reading. Set the book down when sharing thoughts or asking questions as a visual cue that you are talking now and that what you are sharing are your thoughts, not the author’s thoughts.

Asking open-ended questions invites your child to share his or her thoughts, so begin by asking a question such as, “Phillis studied English, Latin, Greek, geography, and mathematics; but, she liked poetry best. Do you know anyone who is like Phillis Wheatley?” or “How are you most like Phillis Wheatley?” If your child has a hard time making this connection you can point out that Phillis was intelligent, determined, and loving, then ask in which of these ways he or she feels most like Phillis Wheatley. Follow up by saying, “Tell me more about that.” Occasionally summarize what he or she has said to show your understanding and to support your child’s connection to Phillis Wheatley and her story. For instance, you could say, “Phillis Wheatley was determined to publish her poetry. You are determined too when you practice your sport, reading, music, etc. I appreciate the way that you work so hard at ____.”

After Reading: Share some of your favorite poetry with your child. Ask your child to share poetry with you. Consider memorizing a poem together from Make a Joyful Sound: Poems for Children by African American Poets, Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes, or watch Maya Angelou’s segment “My Name” on Sesame Street and sing along.

While Bejamin Banneker and Phillis Wheatley wrote about the wrongs of slavery, other people worked hard to end slavery. Some people, like Gabriel Prosser in 1800, Denmark Vesey in 1822, and Nat Turner in 1831 organized slave revolts to fight against the crime of slavery. All three men died because they tried to free slaves.

On July 2, 1839, slaves on the slave ship Amistad revolted against the men who held them captive. After the Amistad landed in New York, the men who had revolted were put on trial.

Amistad: A Long Road to Freedom by Walter Dean Myers

Amistad: A Long Road to Freedom provides the background of the lives of the Amistad captives, the details of their trials, and the story of their lives after the trials. Myers’ informative writing style keeps you interested in the nonfiction text. The text and the topic are advanced and you may prefer to read the book yourself then share information with your child.

During the years when many African Americans were held captive as slaves, some men and women escaped. One courageous woman who escaped also helped many other slaves escape. Harriet Tubman was a leader on the “Underground Railroad,” a route for helping slaves escape. Harriet Tubman is featured in The ABCs of Black History.

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford

I love that Harriet Tubman dreamed of freedom and ensured that so many people could live in freedom, too. Faced with being separated from her family, Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery. Dreaming of freeing others from slavery, she charted her course and succeeded in leading over 300 slaves out of captivity and into freedom. (Zoobean)

Before Reading There is a conversation that goes on between authors and the books they have read. We get to be part of that connection when we read. Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom is having a conversation with the life of Moses. Share with your child that a man named Moses led Jewish slaves out of Egypt after 400 years of slavery. Then ask your child, “If you knew that someone was in need, what would you do to help them?” Listen to your child’s thoughts and ideas before introducing the story of Harriet Tubman who, like Moses, led her people out of slavery.

After Reading Remind your child of his or her ideas about helping others. Ask your child, “What was Harriet Tubman’s dream?” “How did Harriet Tubman make her dream a reality?” and “Was she successful?” Follow up your conversation with this short, inspiring video about Harriet Tubman, the conductor for younger children. For children ages 7+, consider National Geographic’s app The Underground Railroad: Journey to Freedom. Use this app to explore why the Underground Railroad was so important, what took place on the journey to freedom, and decision-making. The National Geographic Education Guide written for this app suggests asking questions such as, “How do you think the experiences you faced in the game were similar to those faced by a fugitive slave in the 1850s? How were they different?”

Finally, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This Proclamation said that anyone who was a slave in the Confederate States of America was now free. Two years later Congress passed the 13th Amendment which said slavery is illegal in the United States of America. In 1868, the 14th Amendment said all people born in the United States were citizens and their rights have to be protected. This meant that people who had been enslaved were citizens and their rights would be protected by the law. In 1870, the 15th Amendment said that all men who were citizens of the United States could vote in elections in the United States. Even with these laws, many African Americans did not get to enjoy the same rights as other American citizens. Since the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were passed, many men and women have worked hard in the Civil Rights Movement to make sure that all African Americans the rights and freedoms that all citizens of the United States have.

March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World Scholastic DVD

I appreciate that this is a kid-friendly portrayal of positive role models. There are segments on Martin Luther King, Jr., March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World and Martin’s Big Words; a segment on Rosa Parks, Rosa; and one segment on Henry Box Brown, Henry’s Freedom Box, who mailed himself to freedom. Each segment can be watched individually. There are no intense images to frighten younger children; however, there will be some words you will want to discuss the meaning of, such as lynch, segregation and boycott. You can introduce your child to vocabulary at the level you feel is age-appropriate, knowing you can return to these topics again when you find he or she has more understanding. (Zoobean)

Before Viewing: Ask your child, “What do we know about the Underground Railroad?” “What do we know about Martin Luther King, Jr.” or “What do we know about Rosa Parks?” Then, ask, “What questions do we have about the Underground Railroad?” “What questions do you have about Martin Luther King, Jr.” or “What questions do you have about Rosa Parks?”
After Viewing: Remind your child of one of the questions he or she had before watching and talk about the answer. Continue with his or her other questions. If there are any unanswered questions, pull out a book or head to the library for some books. Suggestions include: I am Rosa Parks by Brad Meltzer

Malcolm Little by Ilyasah Shabazz

What shaped Malcolm X into the man of action, thought, and equality that he became? His daughter, Ilyasah, shares the family’s background of dreaming of equality for all, valuing family, and valuing education. As a tribute to her grandparents and her father, Ms. Shabazz has gifted us with a book that introduces Malcolm X to us as a child, shares his childhood joys, and walks with us through the losses he faced. You can use this book as an introduction to Malcolm X and to Civil Rights. (Zoobean)

Before Reading:Ask your child, “Who is one of your heroes?” and “What do you think he or she was like as a child?” Introduce Malcolm X to your child, sharing how he is a hero to many people because of his work to bring equality to all people saying, “In this book about Malcolm X, we’re going to learn about his childhood and what made him into a man who would become a hero.”

Interactive Reading: When you reach a portion of the book that shows how Malcolm X’s character was formed, such as the page that depicts his father building a new house, after their home was burned to the ground. Stop and ask your child, “When Mr. Earl Little refused to stop working for equality after his house was burned, how did that help his son learn to never give up?” Another scene for discussion is the depiction of his mother teaching her children about the world beyond their home. When you stop, ask your child, “How did his mother teaching him about the world around him help Malcolm Little to care about everyone?”

I am Rosa Parks by Brad Meltzer

This biography of Rosa Parks in graphic novel form for the younger set is energetic and engaging. “I am Rosa Parks“ tells the story of one of America’s icons in a vivacious, conversational way that works well for the youngest nonfiction readers. The focus is on Parks’ daring to stand up for herself and other African Americans by staying seated, helping to end public bus segregation, and launching the country’s Civil Rights Movement. (Meltzer / Zoobean)

African American men and women contribute to every field of study, making the world a better place for everyone. What areas are your child interested in? Maybe some of the following people were successful in the same areas your child dreams of being involved in.

Find Where the Wind Goes: Moments From My Life by Mae Jemison

As a young child, Mae Jemison dreamed of becoming a scientist. Her course took her to medical school and the Peace Corps. As a successful woman, Dr. Mae Jemison joined NASA and became the first African American woman in space. If your child is still quite young, read one chapter out loud each evening and talk about how Mae dreamed of her future, planned to achieve her dreams, and was successful. (Zoobean)

After Reading: Meet a Super Scientist from Scholastic offers a short biography of Mae Jemison. Read this short biography of Astronaut Mae Jemison and find one thing you want to explore further. For example, Mae borrowed library books about the universe. Find library books about the solar system and the universe. Then, make your own model of a planet in the solar system.

NASA offers this easy-to-follow guide to making a model of Saturn.

Firebird: Ballerina Misty Copeland Shows a Young Girl How to Dance Like the Firebird by Misty Copeland

For the ballerina, the ballet-loving reader, and for anyone who has ever attempted something and struggled with the learning process, ballerina Misty Copeland encourages us to keep dreaming and working. Ms. Copeland came to ballet as a teen with a dream. She worked hard, she practiced, and she has succeeded in reaching her dreams and in leading others to reach for their own dreams. (Zoobean)

Before Reading Ask your child, “Have you ever tried to do something that didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to?” “How did you feel about it?” and “How did you learn to be successful at it?” This is a good time to share a story or two of your own about the hard work and practice you have put into something. Introduce Misty Copeland by sharing that she is a succssful ballerina who knows that success takes hard work and practice. Did you know that Misty is only the second African American to solo at American Ballet Theater. Ask your child, “What do you think Misty Copeland will say brings success?”

After Reading Ask your child, “What has made Misty Copeland successful?” and “How is she helping someone else in this story to be successful?” Talk about how you have been successful, the people who have come beside you in your work, and the people you are mentoring toward success.

Watch Misty Copeland interact with the music in a solo.  

About Rebekah K.

An insomniac since 1979, Rebekah has filled her nights with books & history. Rebekah's earliest memories are of watching documentaries, reading books, and playing Candy Land late at night with her dad. Is it any wonder that she doesn't consider being a librarian and teacher a job? During her fifteen years, in college and K-12 libraries and 10 years in English, ESL, and History classrooms, she has spent her days talking about books and history, sometimes at the same time. Rebekah says, "I love pairing readers with books that are a perfect fit. I feel like I have won a war when a reluctant reader returns to tell me they hated reading; but, after reading a book I recommended, they stay up with a flashlight to read until the page is blurry."