Real and legendary black heroes

Among the rich, melodic voices of black American folklore, perhaps there's none as resonant as that of John Henry, the ``natural born steel-driving man'' who won the race against a steam drill but lost his life. A new rendition of this legend, A Natural Man, The True Story of John Henry, has recently been published by the distinguished Boston publishing firm of David Godine ($13.95, all ages). The author is professional poet and storyteller Steve Sanfield, and illustrator Peter J. Thornton rounds out the tale with softly evocative pencil drawings.

Youngsters who aren't familiar with the story will warm to this telling, and those who've grown up singing about ``when John Henry was a little baby'' will enjoy yet another version of the traditional ballad.

It's always been a powerful tale, and the fresh new images that author Sanfield creates only add to its impact. Whether he's writing about a night ``as black as a crow's wing dipped in ink,'' or a hush ``as quiet as rock dust settling in a drill hole,'' Sanfield is building lush memories for listeners and would-be readers. When John Henry's final hammer rings out, there are sure to be pleas for ``just one more time, please!''

An equally stirring voice in black American history belonged to one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's hand-picked advisers. Her story is told in Mary McLeod Bethune, Voice of Black Hope, by Milton Meltzer, illustrated by Stephen Marchesi (Viking, $9.95, ages 8-12).

As one of 17 children in a hardworking South Carolina family - the 14th to arrive and the first to be born free - Mary spent her early years picking cotton and wishing she knew how to read. The first opportunity came with the establishment of a mission school by the Northern Presbyterian Church, and was followed by training at an all-black seminary and finally an all-white mission training school.

Denied an assignment in Africa because of her color, Mary McLeod went on to open a school of her own in Daytona, Florida. Next came a college, and then a hospital, and within a few more years she had organized the National Council of Negro Women to fight segregation and discrimination.

During the early years of FDR's New Deal, Mrs. Bethune went to Washington to head the National Youth Administration. It was there, author Meltzer writes, that she ``boldly assumed the role of spokesperson to the government for all black people.'' Hers was a remarkable career, and this brief biography explores some of the highlights. Although it's a bit thin on personal vignettes, Bethune's accomplishments make a substantial impression.

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