On the summer day in 1963 that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream’’ speech and led the March on Washington, Sharon Langley, then 11 months old, was placed on a colorful wooden horse on a carousel at Baltimore’s Gwynn Oak Amusement Park. Her ride would become synonymous with the civil rights movement, as she and her family were among the first African Americans to legally enter the formerly segregated property, and she was the first African American to ride on the carousel.
This month, Langley, a school administrator in Southern California, along with co-author Amy Nathan and illustrator Floyd Cooper, is celebrating the publication of A Ride to Remember, a picture book chronicling that long-ago day. The horse, by the way, is now named Freedom Rider and is still providing rides to youngsters on the carousel, now located in the middle of the National Mall. Langley, 57, is heading back to Baltimore, where she is a featured speaker for the Reginald F. Lewis African American History Museum’s MLK Day Celebration on Jan. 20.
What do you use as your guide when picking out children’s books to read?
I belong to several groups — a critique group, two poetry groups and a playwriting group. I think the various groups and the people influence what I’m reading. It is enriching for me and helps me have a sense of what people are reading, writing and enjoying. Also, when you work in public schools, you work with a lot of different families and interact with a lot of different children. You want to relate to all of them, along with their culture, and continue to learn yourself.
As an educator, how important do you think children’s literature is in history classes?
First, it’s important that children see an authentic and accurate representation of themselves even if you are talking about a difficult time in history, an unpleasant incident or unjust circumstance. You have a duty to talk about it. If you don’t address things or have literature that addresses the issues, concerns and injustices, whether children, young adults or adults, then you are creating a vacuum and it’s a form of erasure.
Can you share your thoughts on the value of the federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.?
I think the holiday has evolved over time. Originally, the goal was to recognize Dr. King and celebrate his birthday, and we do this, but now more than ever people use the day as a day of service, and I think this is befitting the occasion. We are honoring a person whose life was spent in service of others, and we are not just taking the day off. We are using the day to come together to benefit our community, our fellow humans.