Teaching History with Children’s Literature: Sweet Land of Liberty

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The book Sweet Land of Liberty, written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by Leonard Jenkins, tells the true story of how a simple experience as a child can lead to an extraordinary experience in history.  It begins with a poor white boy in rural Virginia during the Jim Crow era, who sees how his black friends are treated unfairly.  The boy, named Oscar Chapman, sees the effects of racism at a young age, and it leads him to a life-long commitment to end bigotry.

Fortunately, Oscar ends up with an important government job in Washington, D.C. (Secretary of the Interior) and he becomes friends with Walter White, head of the NAACP.  Oscar and Walter worked together to figure out a way to have Marian Anderson, a black singer with a beautiful voice, sing at a public concert. Even though she was famous across the world, she wasn’t allowed to sing in Constitution Hall (the largest concert hall in D.C.) because of her race. Then Walter had an idea and told Oscar that the perfect place to have Marian sing would be in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

“The Lincoln Memorial had never been used for a public gathering. But Oscar wasn’t about to let that stop him. Oscar went to see his boss, Harold Ickes, who agreed to talk to his boss: President Franklin Roosevelt!”

President Roosevelt thought that the performance would be “a wonderful idea” and on Easter Sunday in 1939, 75,000 people of all ages and races came to see Marian Anderson sing America: My Country ‘Tis of Thee. Marian decided to change the traditional lyrics “of thee I sing” to “to thee we sing” knowing that America still had a lot of work ahead to “let freedom ring.” Oscar, Walter, and Marian had no idea at the time that 24 years later, another important public ”performance” will take place in that very same setting, promoting an even bigger protest against segregation by Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the end of the book, the author gives a factual review of the events that eventually led to Marian Anderson’s performance, along with actual photos of the characters. This story’s colorful and depective artwork, along with author’s message of a child’s ability to change the course of history, makes Sweet Land of Liberty a great choice for any elementary student’s classroom or home.

Curriculum Connections:
Sweet Land of Liberty uses a symbolic national song, America: My Country Tis’ of Thee, to tell the story of how segregation led to the first performance ever conducted at the Lincoln Memorial in front of a large crowd (of course, a couple decades later, Martin Luther King, Jr. uses the same setting for his I Have a Dream speech).  The book gives examples of the effects of segregation in the first half of the 20th century, and shows how even the famous African-Americans would still be treated unfairly.  Also, this book emphasizes the importance of standing up for your beliefs, and your belief in others, which promotes good citizenship.

Additional Resources:

  • The University of Pennsylvania’s library site provides a detailed biography of Marian Anderson, which includes the audio and a video from her performance at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 (located in the “Singing to the Nation” link).
  • The website for President Truman’s Library includes the actual transcript from an interview with Oscar Chapman where he tells the stories of what it was like growing up in the south during segregation, and then how he helped organize Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial (these conversations start about halfway down the page.) The book’s author mentions that she stumbled upon these transcripts while doing research, then realized that Oscar was a pretty important character in Marian’s story.
  • The History of Jim Crow is a website devoted to detailing what life was like in the era after the civil war and before civil rights.  This site gives a lot of great resources for teachers, including lesson plans, state-specific segregation laws, and additional websites that are useful for education about this time in American history.
  • Deborah Hopkinson’s personal site is filled with information about herself, her books, resources for students and teachers. She is also available to do presentations or workshops at schools and libraries.

Book: Sweet Land of Liberty
Author: Deborah Hopkinson
Illustrator: Leonard Jenkins
Publisher: Peachtree Publishers
Publication Date: March 2007
Pages: 32
Grade Range: 1st – 5th
ISBN: 978-1561453955