CommonLit Secondary Classrooms 8 Inspiring Biographies Featuring Influential Black Americans for Secondary Students

These engaging and diverse biographies on CommonLit’s digital literary platform will inspire your students to dream big and achieve excellence while strengthening their reading comprehension skills.

CommonLit’s online digital literacy program provides teachers with access to thousands of compelling, free texts and comprehension questions. In this blog post, we will highlight eight biographies featuring influential Black American innovators, athletes, activists, and more to inspire your students this Black History Month and year-round.

Simone Biles” by Marty Kaminsky (6th Grade)

Many of your students may already be familiar with the achievements of Simone Biles, widely considered the greatest gymnast of all time, but may not know about the perseverance it took for her to reach greatness at such a young age. This biography highlights Biles’ achievements and discusses the challenges she overcame throughout her early life.

After reading, ask students to discuss how success is achieved with Discussion Question 1, “Simone Biles has won various gold medals at the All-Around World Championships and the 2016 Summer Olympics. What do you think contributed to her success? What traits do you think are the most important to success?”

Frederick Douglass: A Biography” by National Park Service  (7th Grade)

Celebrate the legacy and accomplishments of Fredick Douglass with this short biography that traces his life’s work and involvement in the abolition movement.

After reading this biography on Frederick Douglass, have students read an excerpt from his autobiography, “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: Excerpt from Chapter 1,” in the Paired Texts tab. Douglas is described as a powerful writer and speaker in the National Park Service biography. Ask students to name what makes his descriptions so powerful in this excerpt from "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass".

Rosa Parks: Beyond the Bus” by Barrett Smith (7th Grade)

Few people know the extent and impact of Rosa Parks’ lifelong work as a famous  civil rights activist. In this informational text, Smith explores Parks’ achievements and questions the narrative we are so often told. Smith shows that Parks was a strong, vocal woman who dedicated her life to creating change and advocating for peace.

After reading, students can discuss how Parks was able to create lasting and widespread change. We also have a Target Lesson on this text which can be used for targeted reading intervention and to help students analyze the author’s point of view.

How Jackie Robinson Changed Baseball” by Jesssica McBirney (7th Grade)

Hook students’ interest with this biography about Jackie Robinson, the first African American baseball player to play in the Major Leagues.

This biography not only discusses Robinson’s impact as a baseball player but also the impact he had on the Civil Rights Movement by breaking the color barrier in baseball.  To explore his legacy, ask students Discussion Question 3 , “In the context of the article, how has America changed over time? How has America changed in its treatment and acceptance of people of color? In what capacity did Jackie Robinson represent the beginning of this change?”

Malcolm X” by Barrett Smith (8th Grade)

In this informational text, Barrett Smith discusses Malcolm X’s life and contributions to the Civil Rights Movement as an African American Muslim minister and leader.

Despite his accomplishments, Malcolm X was portrayed by the media as a violent troublemaker for years following his death. Ask students Discussion Question 4, “How did Malcolm X's legacy immediately following his death compare to how we view him today? Why do you think Malcolm X's legacy changed with time?” Encourage student reading comprehension by asking students to cite evidence from the text, their experience, and other literature, art, or history in their answers.

The Women of Hidden Figures” by Jessica McBirney (8th Grade)

Students may have seen the 2016 film Hidden Figures, which tells the story of three Black women NASA mathematicians who overcame sexism and racism in the 1960s. But who were these women, exactly? This text describes the contributions of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, whose talents and skills helped them break barriers at NASA.

After students read, watch the “Hidden Figures Trailer” under Related Media. Ask students to discuss how the information provided in the text compares to the video. What obstacles do these three Black women scientists face in the trailer?

Tuskegee Airmen” by Jessica McBirney (9th Grade)

In this short biography for students, McBriney describes the impact of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African American fighter pilots and bomber pilots who flew in the U.S. Air Force during World War II along with the discrimination they faced.

Pair this text with “Female WWII Pilots: The Original Fly Girls.” After reading both texts, ask students to compare the stories of these two groups of World War II pilots. What challenges did each group face as pilots during the war? How did the public perceive their accomplishments?

Celebrate Black American’s achievements with other biographies about influential Black Americans by Jessica McBirney like Duke Ellington and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

A Child of Slavery Who Taught a Generation” by Karen Grigsby Bates (9th Grade)

Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, one of the first Black women to earn a Ph.D., knew that education is the gateway to success. Cooper is best known for her work as principal of the first public high school for Black students in Washington, D.C. Cooper advocated for classic literature, foreign languages, and advanced mathematics to be taught at the school so that it rivaled the private, all-white D.C. schools in academic rigor.

After students read, have them compare and contrast teaching vocational skills versus college preparation in high school. Ask them Discussion Question 3, “In the context of this article, what is the goal of education?”

Next Steps

Looking to explore more great instructional resources to celebrate Black History Month with students? Check out our Black Heritage Text Set and our upcoming webinars!