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Twentieth-century African American history is filled with stories of families on the move, from the Great Migration in the century’s early decades to the reverse migration of the 1970s, when many families returned to the post-Jim Crow South. The children’s books below offer both historical and fictional accounts of those journeys, helping kids (and adults) imagine the past while finding connections to stories of contemporary families moving, together and apart, across state and national borders.
Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, the Great Migration North, by Patricia McKissack
This entry in the diary-format Dear America series tells the story of Nellie Lee Love, who moves from her family home in Bradford Corners, Tennessee to Chicago in 1919. In her strong narrative filled with captivating social history, McKissack clearly shows the reasons why many left the South, as well as the difficulties they faced in their new homes.
Coming on Home Soon, by Jacqueline Woodson
In this Caldecott Honor Book, the migration story isn’t from south to north; it’s from country to city. During WWII, Ada Ruth’s mother leaves their rural home to find work: “They’re hiring colored women in Chicago since all the men are off fighting in the war.” At home with Grandma, Ada Ruth holds on to memories of her mother as she writes to her. Race, class, and gender struggles are part of the larger drama (“A colored woman working on the railroad!”), but for Ada Ruth, what’s hardest is the waiting, quietly expressed in her simple, poetic first-person narrative. Lewis’ beautiful watercolors establish the setting while capturing the timeless yearning.
Going North, by Janice N. Harrington
In 1964 Alabama, Jessie’s African American family prepares to leave the South for better jobs and schools. Jessie knows that the best opportunities lie further north, but she doesn’t want to leave her beloved grandparents and familiar home: “I wish my toes were roots. / I’d grow into a pin oak and never go away.” On moving day, the family piles into the station wagon for a long drive to Nebraska. In subtle, cadenced poetry, Harrington brings close the stark realities blacks faced in the segregated South (“Can’t stop anywhere. / Only the Negro stations, / only the Negro stores”) as well as Jessie’s growing excitement as she considers what’s ahead: “listening to the tires / make a road-drum, a road-beat: / good luck / good luck / good luck.” Lagarrigue’s paintings heighten the emotions in Jesse’s words in scenes that beautifully capture the family scenes in the car and the endless, shifting landscape.
The Great Migration: Journey to the North, by Eloise Greenfield
This stirring collection of poems honors those who took part in the Great Migration, including the poet herself. On spreads that capture different stage in the journey, Greenfield’s free-verse poetry amplifies the feeling of momentum, as in lines that evoke the rhythm of the train in the northbound passengers’ questions: “Will I make a good life / for my family, / for myself? / The wheels are singing, / ‘Yes, you will, / you will, you will!’ / I hope they’re right. / I think they’re right. / I know they’re right.” Gilchrist’s moving mixed-media collages, the immediate words, and Greenfield’s personal story create a powerful, haunting view of a pivotal moment in U.S. history even as they show the universal challenges of leaving home behind and starting a new life.
The Great Migration North, 1910–1970, by Laurie Lanzen Harris
This title offers an excellent overview of the Great Migration, including connections with the civil rights movement and explanations of how the decline in immigration from Europe drove the demand for African American migrant workers in the North. Also featured are fascinating biographies of leading figures, from W. E. B. DuBois to Malcolm X) and a strong “Primary Sources” section, with refreshing, contemporary views of history. This is a great choice for students’ research, but it’s also a good personal-reading recommendation for both teens and adults.
Ruth and the Green Book, by Calvin A. Ramsey
Atlanta playwright Ramsey tells a story from “unknown pages in African American history” in this powerful picture book set in the 1950s. Driving with her parents from Chicago to Grandma’s house in Alabama, Ruth is excited until the family is refused access to the restroom at a service station, and they are forced to sleep in their car after being turned away from hotels. Then, at an Esso station, they get a copy of the pamphlet called The Negro Motorist Green Book, which lists places where black people are welcome. A long final note about The Green Book fills in more of the historical background to this family story that ends with a joyful reunion.
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