Lift Every Voice: History and Stories

In addition to this year being the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, it is also fifty years since I graduated from high school. My foundational education provided very few opportunities to read books by African American writers, either for school or pleasure. Interestingly, one of the first gift books I received was A Pictorial History of the Negro in America by Langston Hughes and Milton Meltzer, published in 1956. This collection of stories and pictures highlighting African American history sought to counter its absence from most of the narratives available for young readers at that time.

I suspect it was no accident that the book was published two years after Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark court case that declared public school segregation unconstitutional. Books like this one by Hughes and Meltzer reflected the tenor of the times and were designed to encourage young African Americans. They also sought to persuade white people of the vital contributions of Black citizens.

I received this book from my uncle, Roscoe Monroe, a proud man who believed in family connections and the “uplift of the race.” In many ways, that book set me on a path of loving history and stories. It has a great deal in common with 1992 Coretta Scott King Author Award winner Now Is Your Time!: The African-American Struggle for Freedom by Walter Dean Myers — a recognition that each generation needs to know the history, hear the stories.

My elementary school librarian, an elegant Black woman named Reba Brailsford, demonstrated to me that those two things could be combined to make a life’s work: putting great books into the hands of young people. The changes promised by an end to legal education segregation had not trickled down to Dr. Carter G. Woodson Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but Ms. Brailsford worked tirelessly and artistically to make the school library a magnet for this young reader. The fact that we attended a school named for the founder of Black History Month (Negro History Week, in those days) may have been lost on the students at the time, but it was not without importance.

It’s worth noting that the first CSK Author Award was given to another Baltimore-based school librarian, Lillie Patterson, for Martin Luther King, Jr.: Man of Peace. My own CSK–Virginia Hamilton Practitioner Award for Lifetime Achievement is directly tied to those early examples who quietly laid a path for me and many others.


From the May/June 2019 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: CSK Book Awards at 50. Find more information about ordering copies of the special issue.

Deborah Taylor

Deborah Taylor

Deborah Taylor retired from the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland. She has chaired and served on many ALA committees and on the National Book Awards jury for young people’s literature. She was named the 2015 recipient of the Coretta Scott King/Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. She currently serves as chair of the Ezra Jack Keats Awards Committee.

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