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Influential Leaders, Past and Present: 20 Black History Month Resources

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Through a Lens Darkly/Thomas Allen Harris

For Black History Month, explore the contributions of prominent individuals beginning with this resource list highlighting influential black leaders of the past and present. These public media videos, images, and articles shed light on the significant achievements of both notable and lesser-known African American artists, scientists, innovators, educators, and activists. Use this list to consider the enduring legacy of inequality in the United States, both this month and throughout the year.

Teaching Tip: After introducing students to influential African American leaders in society, encourage them to think critically about the origins and observance of Black History Month by watching Shukree Hassan Tilghman’s documentary More than a Month.

Art and Culture

These painters, musicians, and photographers use art to drive social change, showcasing their work in a variety of contexts, from jazz clubs to Instagram. Explore these resources to learn more about how artistic expression helps individuals develop their personal and collective identities.

Picturing America on Screen: Jacob Lawrence and Martin Puryear (Video, Grades 6-12)

This video centers on the paintings of two influential artists, Jacob Lawrence and Martin Puryear. Lawrence’s Migration series depicts the northern migration of African Americans and Puryear’s Ladder for Booker T. Washington highlights the different phases of black history, from the Jim Crow period to integration and beyond.


Teaching Tip: Prompt students to research a black artist of their choice and share their findings with the class. Were students familiar with the artists? What does their research illuminate about the appreciation and representation of black artists in the media?

Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra (Video, Grades 1-4)

This video tells the story of Duke Ellington, influential jazz giant who toured the world as a performer and composer for almost fifty years. He made a huge impact on contemporary music by transcending traditional musical conventions.

Teaching Tip: Use Duke Ellington’s music as a jumping off point to discuss the Harlem Renaissance, a period of artistic innovation for writers, artists, and musicians. Show students a short video about the Harlem Renaissance or use this lesson plan to examine how San Francisco’s Fillmore District became a cultural center for the black community during the 1950s, much like Harlem during the 1920s.

Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “The Ballad of Booker T.” (Primary Source Documents, Grades 6-12)

Learn about Langston Hughes, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century and a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, by reading several of his poems, including “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “The Ballad of Booker T.”

Teaching Tip: Help students learn about the writing process by reading the five different drafts of “The Ballad of Booker T.” Afterwards, use other primary source documents from the Library of Congress to delve deeper into the art, music, and literature of the Harlem Renaissance.

Black as Ink: Revisiting Black History through SF Artist’s Work (Artwork, Grades 6-12)

These Instagram portraits created by Bay Area art director George McCalman honor black artists, activists, and educators, such as Kathleen Cleaver and Alain LeRoy Locke, who are often left out of history books.

Teaching Tip: Encourage students to produce their own pieces of art, music, or writing to publish on Instagram.

Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People and accompanying article Celebrating Black Love and Reclaiming a Place in History (Video and Article, Grades 6-12)

Watch clips from Thomas Allen Harris’ documentary Through a Lens Darkly, which explores the role of photography in shaping the personal and cultural identities of African Americans.

Teaching Tip: Help students use the photographs to examine the role of art in constructing both identity and social change. Encourage them to take a photograph that represents their own cultural identity.

Science and Innovation

Whether participating in climate change research, designing a jewelry business, working in aerospace engineering, or discovering hundreds of uses for the peanut, all of these individuals have contributed significantly to science and innovation. Use these resources to learn about the work of influential black scientists, engineers, and innovators.  

George Washington Carver: Scientist, Inventor, and Teacher and accompanying Primary Source Documents (Video/Lesson Plan, Grades 3-12)

Learn about the life and work of George Washington Carver, an influential botanist and agricultural chemist. After growing up in slavery and fighting to receive a basic education, he went on to revolutionize agriculture by pioneering the practice of crop rotation.

Teaching Tip: Introduce students to primary source documents, including a photograph of Carver outside the Tuskegee Institute and a transcript of his 1921 testimony to Congress. Encourage students to use these primary sources to analyze the intersectionality of science, education, and politics.

Barriers for Black Scientists and excerpts from the film Forgotten Genius (Article and Video, Grades 9-12)

The film Forgotten Genius centers on chemist Percy Julian and the discrimination he faced as an African American scientist.

Teaching Tip: Encourage students to examine the lingering challenges faced by African Americans in STEM by talking to a scientist in the community. Help them represent their findings using quantitative methods, much like the article uses data to help portray the experiences of black scientists.  

Celebrating Bay Area Black Engineers (Article, Grades 6-12)

Black engineers are underrepresented in engineering fields, making up less than seven percent of the engineering workforce. Learn about African American engineers in the San Francisco Bay Area who have helped increase diversity in engineering and other STEM fields.

Teaching Tip: Prompt students to discuss diversity in STEM with an engineer in their community and share those findings with the class.

Meet Freda DeKnight, a “Hidden Figure” and Titan of African American Food (Article, Grades 6-12)

Learn about Freda DeKnight, a chef and culinary writer responsible for challenging stereotypes about African American food. Her cookbook brought widespread attention to African American cooking and culture, but she remains an “hidden figure” in United States history.

Teaching Tip: Use the article as a starting point to research other “hidden figures” who have been left out of U.S. history narratives because of their race, class, or gender. Why is it important that these individuals be recognized?

Bay Area Black Businesswomen Strive to Beat Odds (Radio Segment and Article, Grades 6-12)

This KQED report reveals the challenges faced by black businesswomen in San Francisco, such as Candice Cox, the owner of a profitable jewelry business.

Teaching Tip: Encourage students to reflect on the social, economic, and political factors that limit the success of many black entrepreneurs.

Education and Social Justice

Throughout history, African Americans have fought for racial equality against unimaginable odds. Engage with these resources to learn about educators and activists who have resisted slavery, segregation, and policy brutality in their collective fight for social justice.

Remembering Civil Rights Leader Dorothy Height, PBS NewsHour and accompanying Lesson Plan (Video, Grades 6-12)

This video highlights the accomplishments of Dorothy Height, a lifelong activist who played a key role in both the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements.

Teaching Tip: Use the lesson plan to help students think about how they can contribute to the fight for racial and gender equality.  

Interview with Rosa Parks (Video, Grades 3-12)

Rosa Parks describes her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where she refused to give up her seat to a white man. Her actions sparked a massive bus boycott that ended when the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation on city buses was unconstitutional.

Teaching Tip: Encourage students to consider the role of other women in both the Civil Rights Movement and current social movements. Facilitate a class discussion about the intersectionality of race and gender in the fight for social change.

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow: Lucy Laney (Video, Grades 9-12)

Learn about Lucy Laney, an influential educator who founded the Haines Normal and Industrial School during the Jim Crow era. She provided young, black women with the opportunity to become teachers and educate the next generation.

Teaching Tip: Prompt students to think about how the leadership of Laney and other women-of-color shaped the educational system by asking students to research another educator.

The Black Panther Party: Through a KQED Lens (Video, Grades 6-12)

These videos from the late 1960s and early 1970s showcase the political, artistic, and cultural influence of the Black Panther Party. Watch interviews with prominent party members including Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael, and Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver.

Teaching Tip: Encourage students to research a member of the Black Panther Party in greater detail using these primary sources or other resources.

Ruby Bridges Goes to School (Video, Grades 2-6)

Watch footage of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges on her first day at an all-white elementary school and listen to her reflect on her experiences with desegregation.

Teaching Tip: After watching the video, show students Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Live With” and ask whether the expression of the girl in the painting seems to match Ruby Bridges’ personal account of her experiences. Encourage students to search for another pivotal moment that has been captured through art.

Bryan Stevenson: On Teaching America’s Long History of Racial Injustice with accompanying video The Lynching of Private James Neely (Article/Interview/Video, Grades 9-12)

In this interview with KQED, Bryan Stevenson discusses his work with the Equal Justice Initiative and stresses the importance of confronting the racial violence of America’s past and present.


Teaching Tip: Educate students about the horrors of lynching by showing a short video detailing the 1898 lynching of veteran Private James Neely. After watching the video, discuss the legacy of racism and violence against African Americans in the United States. Consider using this article to situate modern-day police violence in the context of history.

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