In February 2017, Rochelle Riley was reading Twitter posts and came across a series of black-and-white photos of four-year-old Lola dressed up as different African American women who had made history. Rochelle was immediately smitten. She was so proud to see this little girl so powerfully honor the struggle and achievement of women several decades her senior. Rochelle reached out to Lola's mom, Cristi Smith-Jones, and asked to pair her writing with Smith-Jones's incredible photographs for a book. The goal? To teach children on the cusp of puberty that they could be anything they aspired to be, that every famous person was once a child who, in some cases, overcame great obstacles to achieve.
That They Lived: African Americans Who Changed the World features Riley's grandson, Caleb, and Lola photographed in timeless black and white, dressed as important individuals such as business owners, educators, civil rights leaders, and artists, alongside detailed biographies that begin with the figures as young children who had the same ambitions, fears, strengths, and obstacles facing them that readers today may still experience. Muhammad Ali's bike was stolen when he was twelve years old and the police officer he reported the crime to suggested he learn how to fight before he caught up with the thief. Bessie Coleman, the first African American female aviator, collected and washed her neighbors' dirty laundry so she could raise enough money for college. When Duke Ellington was seven years old, he preferred playing baseball to attending the piano lessons his mom had arranged.
That They Lived fills in gaps in the history that American children have been taught for generations. For African American children, it will prove that they are more than descendants of the enslaved. For all children, it will show that every child can achieve great things and work together to make the world a better place for all.
That They Lived was made possible through a grant provided by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.
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There is no other book about African American lives like That They Lived. Riley and Smith-Jones have revisited twenty-one historic figures to demonstrate that whatever fame or greatness one achieves, everyone was a child once. How wonderful to learn of the childhoods of icons from Douglass to Obama, Wells to Hamer, and so many more. The book gleams with the sheer variety of black life and ambition. The photographs are magic. This is for young readers, but really for all of us since we all came from somewhere.
That They Lived transforms Frederick Douglass from a historical figure into a courageous soul who helped turn the nation against slavery. Aretha Franklin is no longer just a voice but a young woman who overcame tragedy and prejudice on her way to success. That They Lived makes the stories of these courageous African Americans come alive, making it possible for young people of all colors to see how they, too, can change the world.
Mixing words with images, That They Lived introduces African American luminaries anew through the eyes of a girl named Lola. Her game of dress-up is not merely play, explains her mother, photographer Cristi Smith-Jones. Lola's imaginings are paired here with Rochelle Riley's vivid biographies, inviting us all to see ourselves in the Black Americans who have transformed our world. This book invites young people to dream big and then fashion themselves into the next generation of change agents.