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 adolescence 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.
“I talked to Cristi about my one-woman campaign to make America’s public schools teach a complete history of America rather than the segregated histories we teach now,” Riley says. “My campaign, ONE AMERICA, ONE HISTORY, begins with the single idea that our goal should not be to uncover hidden figures. Our goal should be to stop hiding them. I returned a few months later with my grandson, Caleb, so Cristi could honor African-American men through his face. We chose men whose impacts were historic and whose words, ideas, and ideals were lasting. His favorite photo shoot was of Frederick Douglass because, well, he loved the hair.”
That They Lived: African Americans Who Changed the World features Riley’s grandson 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.
New York Times bestselling author Alice Randall says, “That They Lived is an instant classic. Words and images, the past and the future, weave back and forth in a stunningly original children’s book, until we see and hear the American Dream becoming an American reality as the young people depicted—and the young people reading—come to know their history and their power.”
Smith-Jones says, “I am a stay-at-home wife and mother turned amateur photographer, and I could never have imagined that we would reach so many people. It felt as though we were continuing the legacies of women who made it possible for generations of children to achieve their dreams. They have already affected Lola’s life, and I hope that Lola carries those legacies with her as she forges her own path.”
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: African Americans Who Changed the World by Rochelle Riley and Cristi Smith-Jones, published by Wayne State University Press, is now available everywhere books are sold.