Ron Wynn

THE REVOLUTIONARY AND THE PRESIDENT
Though they only met in person three times, each encounter between former slave turned outspoken freedom fighter Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln was monumental. Perhaps the biggest surprise in Douglass and Lincoln, the latest work of father-and-son team Paul and Stephen Kendrick, is how much influence Douglass is credited with having on Lincoln, whose major goal in the Civil War was always saving the Union. The authors document specific instances where Lincoln's responsiveness to abolitionist sentiments was altered after reading various Douglass letters and speeches. In turn, Douglass' views about Lincoln were equally affected by things he heard and saw coming from the president. Despite not agreeing on every issue, the two men eventually forged a common ground regarding the necessity for a Northern victory and the ultimate emancipation of the slaves. How they reached that point, as well as other intriguing insights and events that resulted from or were affected by their meetings, is illuminated and outlined in Douglass and Lincoln.

BEYOND SLAVERY
While even casual readers of American history are familiar with Frederick Douglass, very few people have heard of Sarah Johnson. Johnson was one of the many African Americans owned by the father of our country, George Washington, and her story is told in Scott E. Casper's riveting Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon. Johnson spent more than five decades at Mount Vernon, choosing to remain after Washington's will freed her, and was an integral part of its daily operation. Casper gets to the root of some thorny issues, such as the daily routines of those who lived at Mount Vernon, how they were treated by George Washington and others, why an enslaved person would choose to remain after winning freedom, and what roles slaves played in shaping Mount Vernon into a historical shrine. Casper, a professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno, approaches the subject with the care and scrutiny of a scholar, drawing from a number of sources. The result is an intimate and frequently surprising look at both an overlooked individual and one of the nation's foremost historical sites.

An industrious African-American couple living in the North, Lucy and Abijah Prince were far more materially successful than Sarah Johnson or indeed most people in 18th-century America. All that changed, however, when they decided to challenge convention and purchase land. In Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend, Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, host of NPR's "The Book Show," crafts a tale that's got plenty of 21st-century intrigue and surprise. Gerzina depicts the Princes as visionary, highly determined figures who refused to let the taunts, actions or ignorance of bigots stop them. They also had enough faith in their fellow citizens to take their land battle to court in an era when the judicial system was, at best, stacked against blacks. Mr. and Mrs. Prince represents the kind of true-life story that's so amazing it should be much better known, something Gerzina's book may help accomplish.

WHERE HISTORY HAPPENED
Charles E. Cobb Jr.'s On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail may cover the most familiar ground among these books, but that doesn't make it any less important. Cobb, a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the '60s, enhances his coverage of 400 sites with poignant first-person interviews, classic speeches and more than 150 historic photos. He also includes maps and websites offering additional detail and information on the period. On the Road to Freedom should appeal both to those who grew up during this time and those who've come later.

HUNTER AND PREY
The people and places featured in James McBride's Song Yet Sung may be fictional, but they convey with authenticity and power the plight of those enslaved, while revealing the emotional damage done by those charged with maintaining this vicious and dehumanizing practice. McBride, author of the acclaimed memoir The Color of Water, considers the plight of young Liz Spocott, an escaped slave who is shot and captured by slave catcher Denwood Long. Long comes out of retirement to find Spocott; once he does, his life is turned upside down forever. While focusing mainly on the relationship between these two, McBride also ventures into the role of poverty in the formation of attitudes in the pre-war South, the family structure of slaves, African Americans in the abolitionist movement, and the way codes and news were disseminated within songs. McBride's facility with language and knowledge of the period bring his characters to life in vivid, unforgettable fashion. Spike Lee is already at work on the film adaptation of the book; that production should ultimately bring even more readers to this wonderful novel that is equally fascinating, disturbing and magnificent.

THE REVOLUTIONARY AND THE PRESIDENT Though they only met in person three times, each encounter between former slave turned outspoken freedom fighter Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln was monumental. Perhaps the biggest surprise in Douglass and Lincoln, the latest work of father-and-son team Paul and Stephen Kendrick, is how much influence Douglass is credited […]

Black History Month shines a light on lesser-known topics from our past and has the potential to open new conversations on historical events often taken for granted. The latest crop of books on black history achieves both goals.

LIVING HISTORY IN HARLEM
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’ enlightening Harlem Is Nowhere takes a new approach in her look at the venerable community. Rather than crafting a detached, straightforward account, Rhodes-Pitts makes it personal, showing Harlem’s impact on her during the time she lived there. Her trips include stops at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and Lenox Avenue’s famous funeral parlor, where many of the Harlem Renaissance’s key figures were laid to rest. She encounters knowledgeable, flamboyant types like longtime Harlem resident Julius Bobby Nelson, who seems to know everything that’s ever happened there, and neighbors Miss Minnie and Monroe, who quickly become surrogate parents and close confidants. They give her insider details and a scope available only from longtime residents.

Rhodes-Pitts includes tales about photographer James Vander Zee, authors Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston, and activist Marcus Garvey, among many others. Still, Harlem Is Nowhere is more an inspirational memoir than a retrospective work, and should motivate others who’ve only heard about Harlem from a distance to inspect it more closely.

FIGHTING ON TWO FRONTS
Elizabeth D. Leonard’s Men of Color to Arms! looks at black soldiers who defended a nation that hadn’t yet fully recognized their humanity. In the period between 1863 and 1865, more than 180,000 African Americans joined the Union Army due to promises of freedom in exchange for service. Instead they often encountered vigorous anger and resentment from whites who saw them as inferior and even responsible for the deaths of their comrades, despite the bravery of soldiers such as Medal of Honor winners Sergeant Major Christian A. Fleetwood, John Lawson, Thomas Hawkins and Robert Pinn, who distinguished themselves in combat.

There was another enlistment surge later in the decade, when blacks joined the wars against the Sioux, Apache and other Native American nations. Once again, black soldiers found themselves fighting dual sets of enemies. They were isolated and often abandoned by their white counterparts after battles and regarded with contempt by the Native Americans, who wondered how blacks could fight alongside people who openly loathed them. Yet Men Of Color to Arms! reveals the triumphs and victories achieved by black soldiers as well as the efforts undertaken on their behalf by whites of good will against vicious and sustained opposition and hatred.

THE FUTURE OF HISTORY
Although Thomas C. Holt’s comprehensive new historical work, Children of Fire, revisits familiar territory, he does an excellent job of including newer subjects and areas of interest too. He traces the evolution of black Americans from the earliest arrivals to 21st-century figures, highlighting obscure figures alongside established giants like Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For example, Anthony Johnson, a slave in Virginia during the late 1600s, not only bought his freedom but became one of Virginia’s most prosperous landowners. In describing how Johnson was eventually cheated out of his entire empire through a series of overtly bigoted (and now illegal) court rulings, Holt reveals how racism increasingly became part of the South’s judicial and agricultural systems.

Though Holt acknowledges the debt his book owes to other major scholars, Children of Fire includes plenty of his own assessments on topics from Reconstruction to the rise in interaction between black Americans and immigrants from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Holt’s work is both a significant addition to other vital histories of the African-American past and a suggestion of new directions for the future.

CROSSING THE LINE
Daniel J. Sharfstein’s The Invisible Line doesn’t offer apologies for the conduct of the three black families it highlights, all of whom passed for white, but seeks to put their actions into context. The Gibsons knew all the land they’d amassed in 18th-century South Carolina would be taken over in a flash if the populace knew that blacks were the real owners. The Spencers of the mid-19th century became part of a poor community in the eastern Kentucky hills where racial backgrounds were obscured by the common struggle to survive. And the Walls ultimately revealed their true identity and paid the price, forfeiting a sizable amount of fame and wealth in Washington, D.C., in the early 1900s.

By 21st-century standards, the ability of the Gibsons to fool people and the reluctance of the Spencers to even discuss the subject of their origin with their neighbors seems woefully naive, even timid and disgraceful. But as Sharfstein’s research shows, the restricted path for blacks in those eras was such that neither family was willing to give up what they saw as their rightful status. Both became skilled at mimicking the language, customs and actions of whites. When contrasted with the severe price the Walls paid for coming forward, their choices might seem easier to understand. The Invisible Line is a detailed and instructive look at America’s tortured history and still-evolving attitudes toward race.

A STRUGGLE REMEMBERED
Finally, journalist Wayne Greenhaw’s Fighting the Devil in Dixie is the first complete chronicle of the struggle against segregation in Alabama, a state second only to Mississippi in terms of hatred and viciousness against its black citizens. The 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls got international coverage, but killings, lynchings and other attacks had been happening in Alabama long before. Greenhaw, who covered every major event in Alabama’s civil rights era, begins with the 1957 beating and drowning of Willie Edwards Jr., a truck driver attacked by a mob for allegedly assaulting a white woman. Edwards was married with a family and had just received a promotion.

Combining personal memories with a wealth of sources gleaned from that period, Greenhaw tracks many major developments, among them the “Bloody Selma” march, the Freedom Rides and the election of George Wallace and his rise to national fame as the face of segregation. He also documents the role of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which became one of the few organizations that publicly stood against the tide and helped ultimately defeat those who wanted to keep the Jim Crow era alive in Alabama. Fighting the Devil In Dixie shows the power of perseverance and chronicles one of the great victories in America’s ongoing struggle for social justice.

Black History Month shines a light on lesser-known topics from our past and has the potential to open new conversations on historical events often taken for granted. The latest crop of books on black history achieves both goals. LIVING HISTORY IN HARLEMSharifa Rhodes-Pitts’ enlightening Harlem Is Nowhere takes a new approach in her look at […]

Accuracy and fairness have been the major qualities of Michele Norris’ work as a print and broadcast journalist. Though she’s earned the bulk of her acclaim and awards for her contributions to National Public Radio, Norris also covered educational, cultural and social issues for the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times prior to joining NPR. Her interest in not only what people think but how they feel led to the creation of “The York Project: Race and the ‘08 Vote,” a superb series of frank and provocative conversations co-hosted by Norris and fellow NPR reporter/host Steve Inskeep.

It was the brutally honest, frequently painful recollections and opinions voiced throughout the series that led Norris to consider her own life and background and ultimately craft her poignant and insightful memoir, The Grace of Silence. She wanted to examine the complex, thorny reality of race and class through the prism of her family. But the quest to discover these truths proved her most difficult assignment. Not only did Norris become part of the story, she uncovered and had to discuss events and situations relatives wanted kept out of the public record. The process also made her address discomforting personal issues, most notably that her journalistic training was causing problems with people she’d loved and admired for decades.

Norris’ discoveries ranged from her grandmother’s employment as a regional “Aunt Jemima” selling pancake mix, to the police shooting of her father during a suspicious incident in Birmingham decades before the civil rights movement. Her exploration of these incidents, along with her probing of the reasons behind her parents’ divorce, took its emotional toll. Norris describes in simple, moving language the shattering impact of her findings, yet she remains certain that her quest was vital and the things she learned significant, both to her study of race and her overall personal growth and development.

The Grace of Silence combines powerful observations and reflections with equally poignant historical reportage and commentary. It’s a work both uniquely personal and universal, offering a story everyone regardless of background can embrace.

Accuracy and fairness have been the major qualities of Michele Norris’ work as a print and broadcast journalist. Though she’s earned the bulk of her acclaim and awards for her contributions to National Public Radio, Norris also covered educational, cultural and social issues for the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times prior to joining NPR. Her […]

America’s Great Migration, which saw over six million black Americans relocate from the South to either the North, Midwest or West over the period from 1915-1970, has certainly been the subject of numerous articles, essays, books and even television documentaries over the years. Yet Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s new volume The Warmth of Other Suns finds a way to make this worthy yet familiar topic fresh and exciting by moving the focus from the general to the specific. Her decision to examine this incredible event through the eyes of three individuals and their families allows her to make gripping personal observations while providing readers with the broader details and analysis necessary to put the event into its proper perspective.

She selects Ida Mae Brandon Gladney from Mississippi (1937), George Swanson Starling from Florida (1945) and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster from Louisiana (1953), following them on their journeys. They had no idea about where they were going beyond the feeling that it had to be better and offer more opportunity than their current conditions. They were more than willing to sit in cramped, segregated train cars and put their fears aside in search of a new land.

Through more than 1,200 interviews with principals and related individuals, Wilkerson shows how this migration helped change the nation’s political and cultural landscape. From the businesses and communities that were built to those that were abandoned, the music, food and customs that moved to new regions and helped forge a host of hybrid and innovative fresh creations, and the political impact the migrants had on their new cities (the first black mayors of each major Northern and Western city in the Great Migration were participants and family members of this movement), there’s no question this was an epic period in American history.

Yet Wilkerson’s book is also about triumph and failure; it is a study in how this move not only changed the course of a country, but affected those who weren’t always doctors, lawyers or academics. As both its main figures and their relatives recall their past with a mixture of joy, wonder, satisfaction and occasionally sadness or regret, The Warmth Of Other Suns shows that memorable and poignant tales often come from people and places no one expects.

America’s Great Migration, which saw over six million black Americans relocate from the South to either the North, Midwest or West over the period from 1915-1970, has certainly been the subject of numerous articles, essays, books and even television documentaries over the years. Yet Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s new volume The Warmth of […]

Tales of conflict, brutality and oppression have unfortunately become so commonplace in the 24/7 news cycle that many people are no longer shocked or horrified by these accounts. But even the most hardened cynic will be moved by the revelations in the stunning new book In The Shadow of Freedom by former child soldier Tchicaya Missamou, who wrote this remarkable narrative with Los Angeles playwright, author and screenwriter Travis Sentell.

From the age of seven, Missamou willingly participated for years in the horrific civil war that’s ravaged his native Democratic Republic of the Congo for decades. He acknowledges killing friends and neighbors. He watched others being turned into drug addicts as part of the military’s recruiting process while also becoming a killing machine himself.

Yet, even as he was doing this, Missamou instinctively knew these actions were wrong. He documents the psychological toll of his choices in a vivid, clear fashion, detailing how the deaths were affecting him. Finally, he put down his guns and reunited with his mother and siblings.

Eventually Missamou discovered he’d have to abandon his country if he truly wanted to live in peace, particularly when the military insisted he once more take up arms as a 19-year-old. The book’s middle section spotlights his escape, chronicling the sacrifices his family made to ensure his escape. These included his father’s arrest, beating and deliberate infection with HIV by angry army officials.

But Missamou’s determination to revamp and change his life perseveres, and he continues battling against all obstacles. The story takes him from Belgium to Paris to America and covers days spent in poverty, a stint working at a martial arts studio, subsequent enlistment in the U.S. Marines and his rise to a wartime leadership position in Afghanistan. Using skills from an earlier time, Missamou headed the squad that rescued Jessica Lynch. Later he became an American citizen and a business owner while earning a doctorate in education.

Despite its chronicle of survival and triumph, In the Shadow of Freedom contains many sobering aspects alongside the inspirational elements and aspects. Tchicaya Missamou’s resilience and will enabled him to keep seeking redemption and salvation where others might have given up, but he downplays having any special qualities. Instead he pays homage to those family members who paid the ultimate price to help him and others that encouraged, supported and assisted him. This book is a powerful and moving account of a heroic transformation that also shows readers the true meaning of such concepts as freedom and patriotism. 

Tales of conflict, brutality and oppression have unfortunately become so commonplace in the 24/7 news cycle that many people are no longer shocked or horrified by these accounts. But even the most hardened cynic will be moved by the revelations in the stunning new book In The Shadow of Freedom by former child soldier Tchicaya […]

Few epic celebrations have predated more dire events than the 1939 New York World’s Fair, nicknamed “The World of Tomorrow.” Its futuristic exhibits and architecture were designed to divert global attention from the Great Depression’s economic devastation and the sense of impending doom signaled by the rise of Nazi Germany. Instead, as James Mauro’s invigorating and enjoyable new volume Twilight at the World of Tomorrow reveals, the Fair proved a preamble to natural disasters and human failures on a grand scale.

Mauro uses four main figures to symbolize the era’s sensibility and events. Undoubtedly the most colorful was the remarkable genius Albert Einstein, who increasingly came to distrust government and ultimately question the development of a weapon he once championed, the atomic bomb. Einstein hated conflict and warfare, yet he mistakenly felt building this weapon would frighten the world into abandoning armed conflict as a solution to its problems. Instead, it simply became another tool in the military arsenal. While its use ended World War II, Einstein never forgave himself for endorsing its creation.

The book pays equal attention to World’s Fair President Grover Whalen, a master salesman who got egotistical dictators Mussolini and Stalin to contribute pavilions for the fair. Sadly, Hitler’s European conquests destroyed any sense of international cooperation and joy these exhibits conveyed, while shattering Whalen’s optimism and exposing his hypocrisy and pretension. Mauro also details the behind-the-scenes deals and machinations of New York politicians, particularly Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, whose actions were self-serving and often embarrassing.

Finally, he spotlights detectives Joe Lynch and Freddy Socha, who made the ultimate sacrifice while investigating a wave of bomb threats and explosions. Their lives are prime examples of underpaid, exhausted and overworked civil servants determined to discover the truth, even as others, including their superiors, are more interested in personal profit and status.

Twilight at the World of Tomorrow smartly mixes political, cultural, historical and mystery elements, giving readers a thorough, gripping account of a key period that changed the nation and the world forever.

Few epic celebrations have predated more dire events than the 1939 New York World’s Fair, nicknamed “The World of Tomorrow.” Its futuristic exhibits and architecture were designed to divert global attention from the Great Depression’s economic devastation and the sense of impending doom signaled by the rise of Nazi Germany. Instead, as James Mauro’s invigorating […]

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