8 Compelling Texts About Unsung Heroes in Black History

Teenage student raises hand during class.

Inspire your students with stories of courage, service, and excellence!

Often when we teach Black history, we tend to discuss prominent figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, or Malcolm X. While the influence of these agents of social change cannot be overstated, it is also important to learn about the lives and accomplishments of other important historical figures. Many others broke through barriers in schools and in the workplace, standing up against discrimination to create a better future.

Here are eight stories of unsung heroes who laid the groundwork for future generations of Black Americans to thrive!

Who is Katherine Johnson?” by NASA (7th Grade)

Katherine Johnson was a Black mathematician whose work at NASA helped put some of the first Americans in orbit. A bright student from a young age, Katherine began working for NASA at age 34 as a “computer.” Computers did all the complex calculations for male engineers, but Katherine knew she was capable of more. It didn’t take long for her skills to be recognized, and she was soon working alongside engineers to put the first rocket in space! After reading this text, ask students Discussion Question 3, “How has Katherine Johnson helped expand the role of women — particularly African American women — in math and science?”

The Legacy of Charles Drew” by CommonLit Staff (7th Grade)

Dr. Charles R. Drew began studying medicine when Black students were often barred from medical school. Drew uncovered a significant contribution to medical science: blood plasma was easier to preserve than blood! He worked with the American Red Cross to create “blood banks.” He resigned from the position, however, due to the Red Cross’s discriminatory and unscientific practice of segregating blood banks by race. Today, Drew’s work is known for saving many lives. As students read this text, have them pay attention to the way prejudice impacted Dr. Drew’s career and what traits they think he must have possessed in order to overcome these barriers.

Before Rosa Parks, There Was Claudette Colvin” by Margot Adler (7th Grade)

Most students know that Rosa Parks challenged segregation on buses in Montgomery, Alabama, but do they know that fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin did so first? Inspired by Black leaders like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and frustrated by the discrimination Black students faced every day, Colvin planned to refuse to leave the bus voluntarily. She was arrested and jailed for not leaving her seat, nine months before Rosa Parks.After students read, show them the Related Media video “Claudette Colvin: The Original Rosa Parks” to learn more about her!

The CommonLit lesson "Before Rosa Parks, There Was Claudette Colvin."
Learn more about how teenager Claudette Colvin defied segregation on buses!

The First Time John Lewis and I Integrated the Buses” by Bernard Lafayette Jr. (8th Grade)

After the death of his close friend congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette Jr. reflects on the impact of their activism. Lewis and Lafayette were roommates at American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee. The two bonded over their shared commitment to civil rights. Together, Lafayette and Lewis decided to protest segregation on a Greyhound bus in 1960.Though they were fearful for their safety, the ride was successful! Teach students about the full scope of the civil rights demonstrations Lewis and Lafayette were involved in by pairing this text with “The Sit-In Movement.”

Women In The Civil Rights Movement” by Barrett Smith (8th Grade)

Photos taken during the civil rights movement often feature well-known figures of the time like Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and Medgar Evers. At its core, however, the civil rights movement was organized and sustained by women. This text highlights the work and accomplishments of Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Septima Clark, and Viola Liuzzo. As students read this passage, have them consider how discrimination can exist within movements even as these movements battle other kinds of prejudice.

The Women of Hidden Figures” by Jessica McBirney (8th Grade)

By now, many people are familiar with the 2016 film Hidden Figures, which tells the story of three Black female NASA mathematicians who overcame sexism and racism in the 1960s. But who were these women, exactly? This text describes the contributions of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, whose talents and skills helped them break barriers at NASA. After students read, watch the “Hidden Figures Trailer” under the Related Media tab. Have them pay attention to the interaction between the women and the policeman at the beginning of the trailer. Ask them what about this exchange displays the impact of sexism and racism on the lives of these women.

The CommonLit lesson "The Women of Hidden Figures."
Pair “The Women of Hidden Figures” with “Who Is Katherine Johnson?” to learn more about these amazing mathematicians!

A Child Of Slavery Who Taught A Generation” by Karen Grigsby Gates (9th Grade)

Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, one of the first Black women to earn a Ph.D., knew that education is the gateway to success. Cooper’s mother, Hannah, was an enslaved woman, and her father was the white enslaver who owned both of them. Cooper is best known for her work as principal of the first public high school for Black students in Washington, D.C. Cooper advocated for classic literature, foreign languages, and advanced mathematics to be taught at the school so that it rivaled the private, all-white D.C. schools in academic rigor. After students read, have them compare and contrast teaching vocational skills versus college preparation in high school. Ask them Discussion Question 3, “In the context of this article, what is the goal of education?”

Shirley Chisholm’s Presidential Announcement Speech Transcript” by Shirley Chisholm (12th Grade)

Representative Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman to be elected to Congress in 1968 and the first Black woman to run for president as a Democrat in 1972. In this transcript of her candidacy announcement, Chisholm outlines the kind of America she intends to lead, which is one that is united towards change instead of divided by politics. She impresses the necessity of women, specifically Black women and women of color, to run for political office as part of this goal. After reading, watch the Related Media video “Women In Politics Remember Shirley Chisholm.” In it, many Black female politicians discuss Chisholm’s slogan: “Unbought and Unbossed.” Encourage students to make connections between this slogan and the main ideas of her candidacy speech.

Next Steps

Looking for more texts to celebrate Black history and heritage? Browse the Black history text set and Black heritage text set on CommonLit. Also, be sure to check out our Target Lessons About Black History!

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