‘Pathfinders’ for Black History Month

When I wrote my book, “Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History,” I hoped that some folks would touch the book each day and talk about the many ways African-American people have shaped our nation’s economic life, from building this country, to being the basis of our bond system. 

Despite my work, and that of others, Black History Month celebrations seem to center on the men in our history, and on the familiar names. 

You’ve heard of Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Dr. Dorothy Height, W.E.B. DuBois and Mary McLeod Bethune. But do you know Venture Smith, Mary Bowser, James Forten, Charles Wiggins, Clara Smith, Paul R. Williams, and Jackie Ormes? 

Amazing but unknown
These are among the pathfinders that Tonya Bolden has lifted up in her book, “Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls.”  Her book is extraordinary because it features the biographies of relatively unknown and amazing African-Americans, and she puts their lives in context.

Each biography talks about what was happening historically during the subject’s lives.  She also highlights their contemporaries, expanding the reach of the book and, perhaps, challenging students to do their own research about other notable African-Americans.

Bolden is an award-winning children’s book author, but “Pathfinders” is no children’s book. It should be ordered in every school library and purchased by many parents. 

But young people will not be the only ones enhanced by a book that highlights 16 stellar African-Americans, many unknown.

Focus on achievement
Bolden says, “Without denying racism and oppression, I did not want to talk about racism, but about accomplishment.” 

So, she set out to offer a range of occupations for the young people who will read her book.  “I wanted to give kids variety,” she told me.  “I also wanted to expose them to people who had done something.”  Black folks have done amazing things, and Bolden says she wants to encourage young people to “dream big and take chances.” 

Her book reflects that, lifting up Richard Potter, a Black magician who traveled the world as a cabin boy before joining a circus, studying with a ventriloquist, and stepping out on his own to be, says Bolden, “the first magician born in the United States to have success in the land of his birth.” 

Or who would have thought that Sissieretta Jones, the daughter of enslaved people, would have had a successful career as a concert singer?  Jones performed at Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall, sung at the White House for President Benjamin Harrison, and completed a European tour. 

‘Think big’
Bolden says she wants young people to “think big.” Well, in spotlighting Sissieretta Jones, she encourages that dream.  While the average American earned about $400 a year in Jones’ heyday, her earnings were more than $8,000 a year.  She was one of the highest-paid Black entertainers in the United States.

The richness of Bolden’s book lies in the fact that she does offer occupational variety.  There are entertainers but there are also women near and dear to my heart, women that I’ve written about over the years. 

The same week
One is Dr. Sadie Tanner Mosell Alexander, the first African-American woman to receive the Ph.D. degree in economics, and one of the first three to receive the Ph.D. in a single week in June 1921. 

Georgiana Rose Simpson earned her Ph.D. in German from the University of Chicago, and Eva Beatrice Dykes earned her Ph.D. in English from Radcliffe (now Harvard).  She taught at D.C.’s Dunbar High School, Howard University and Oakwood College (now University) in Huntsville, Ala.

Another sister Bolden lifts up is Maggie Lena Walker, the first African-American woman to form and run a bank, Penny Savings Bank, in Richmond, Va.  She cannily merged her bank with others to survive the Great Depression, and the bank thrived until it closed in 2009. 

As an economist, Maggie Lena Walker and Dr. Sadie Tanner Mosell Alexander resonate with me.

Many will also enjoy the lives of architect Paul Williams, combat pilot Eugene Ballard, or filmmaker Oscar Michaeaux.  Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, the woman whose accomplishments were highlighted in the movie “Hidden Figures,” is also featured in Bolden’s book.

We can appreciate Pathfinders’ achievement against all odds, their faith, and their contributions.  We can be inspired by their contributions and by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

“Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.” 

Tonya Bolden’s book is a worthy addition to your library!

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer.


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