‘A Child’s Invitation,’ by Joshua McCarter Simpson (1854)
This song was included in Simpson’s collection “The Emancipation Car,” which he described as “an original composition of anti-slavery ballads; composed exclusively for the under ground rail road.” Several songs in the collection feature children. This is described as a “school song” and begins “Come children young and gay,/Come, come to school.”
‘The Little Builders,’ by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1871)
Harper was the most prominent African American poet of the 19th century, and also published short fiction, novels, essays and speeches. This inclusion from her collection “Poems” addressed “precious children” whose “fingers are unskilled” for the task of “building freedom’s throne” in this Reconstruction moment. The poem is hopeful that they will eventually be suited to the task and encourages them to “Fill your minds with useful knowledge” in preparation.
‘Clarence and Corinne; or, God’s Way,’ by Amelia E. Johnson (1890)
Published by the American Baptist Publication Society, this is a religious novel about temperance and uplift. In addition to her children’s fiction de ella, Johnson founded two periodicals, The Joy, a literary magazine marketed to girls, and The Ivy, focusing on African American history. Neither children’s periodical has (yet) been recovered by current researchers.
‘His Heart’s Desire,’ by Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1900)
Dunbar-Nelson was a prolific writer across genres, but this story — about a boy who wants a doll and eventually gets one, with the help of his teacher and younger sister — has only been recently recovered. “His Heart’s Desire” was sold to The Chicago Daily News in 1900, but Dunbar-Nelson intended to include it in a collection of stories about children called “The Annals of ‘Steenth Street,” inspired by her own work de ella as an educator . The collection did not come to fruition during her lifetime of her, but is now being recovered by scholars.
‘After School,’ by Jessie Fauset (1920)
This playful poem about students who are better able to perform academic tasks after their teacher is no longer watching them appeared in the first issue of The Brownies’ Book in January 1920. The Brownies’ Book was one of the earliest magazines marketed explicitly to Black children and was created by WEB Du Bois, Augustus Granville Dill and Fauset, who contributed regularly and served as the magazine’s literary editor, then managing editor until the final issue in December 1921.
‘Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti,’ by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps (1932)
In a celebrated children’s novel collaboration, two of the best-known Harlem Renaissance writers depicted children of the Black diaspora and their family. The novel was illustrated by the African American artist E. Simms Campbell.
‘Children Know,’ by Effie Lee Newsome (1940)
Newsome was a teacher, librarian and prolific children’s author. She also edited The Crisis’ monthly children’s column, “The Little Page,” from 1925 to 1929. This poem, from “Gladiola Garden: Poems of Outdoors and Indoors for Second Grade Readers,” gives a child’s perspective on adults who understand and pay attention to children.
Brigitte Fielder is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is the author of “Relative Races: Genealogies of Interracial Kinship in Nineteenth-Century America.”