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All Black History Coverage

STARRED REVIEW
February 9, 2024

Lift every voice

Black history month offers fresh looks at freedom fighters John Lewis, Harriet Tubman and Medgar and Myrlie Evers.
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Book jacket image for Combee by Edda L. Fields-Black

Combee

Edda L. Fields-Black’s revelatory Combee narrates the 1863 Combahee River Raid, in which Harriet Tubman led Black soldiers to liberate more than 700 enslaved people.
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medgar&myrlie

Medgar and Myrlie

Page by page, Joy-Ann Reid’s Medgar and Myrlie paints unforgettable portraits of Medgar and Myrlie Evers, two American heroes who faced American racism with unimaginable ...
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johnlewis

John Lewis

Raymond Arsenault’s mesmerizing biography of John Lewis chronicles the life of the Civil Rights icon and congressman whose vision of a just and equitable society ...
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Black history month offers fresh looks at freedom fighters John Lewis, Harriet Tubman and Medgar and Myrlie Evers.
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As a 19-year-old undergraduate, Antonia Hylton read an academic paper that mentioned Crownsville State Hospital, known at its founding as the Hospital for the Negro Insane. That reference triggered an obsession with the hospital’s bleak history that has carried her through the 10 years it took to produce Madness: Race and Insanity in a Jim Crow Asylum. Hylton brings both her journalistic talent and a deep, personal engagement to something she unabashedly describes as a “passion project.” In it, she recounts the 93-year life of Crownsville, tying that painful history to the story of the treatment of mental illness in the United States, especially in communities of color, and to her own family’s experiences with mental health.

Speaking via video from a conference room at NBC headquarters in New York City, Hylton brims with energy and enthusiasm. “If I could understand everything there was to know about Crownsville,” she says, “I would understand my family and my country better.” In her mind, “doing this would be cathartic; it would help me have conversations or fill in blanks that I was struggling to fill in otherwise.”

Hylton calls her book a “tribute to oral history,” and the more than 40 interviews she conducted with former staff and patients—some of them in their 80s or older—and her own family members deeply enrich the story. “This book came to life because of the stories people shared with me,” she says.

One of the greatest challenges in collecting those stories was gaining access to the patients, many of them deeply traumatized by their experiences at Crownsville. “To find patients who were ready to go on the record comfortably was an incredible challenge,” Hylton says, “and it took a lot of trust-building and community outreach. I really had to accept that it was going to be a one-person-at-a-time kind of thing.”

“In addition to putting years of reporting on the page, I put my heart out there.”

Thankfully, there are few people better prepared for this specific kind of work than Hylton. In less than a decade following her graduation from Harvard University, Hylton has already accumulated an impressive set of professional credentials and honors, including Emmy and Peabody awards. After several years as a correspondent and producer for VICE Media, she joined NBC News and MSNBC, where she works as a correspondent on stories at the intersection of politics, education and civil rights.

Book jacket image for Madness by Antonia HyltonBeginning in 2014, she spent long hours in the Maryland State Archives combing through Crownsville’s files, woefully incomplete thanks to shoddy record keeping and the destruction of decades of documents by the state. The paucity of documents would have been far worse had it not been for the efforts of Paul Lurz, a longtime Crownsville staff member who served as an unofficial preservationist. Hylton acknowledges feeling “really angry” that “no one had thought to dignify or track this information in the first place.”

Hylton follows the history of the hospital from its inception in 1911, when 12 Black men were transported to rural Maryland to begin constructing the facility that eventually would house them as its patients, to its closure in 2004. It’s a story of an institution where treatment was often crude and callous, though there were, at times, some who tried to treat their patients with humanity. Most notable among the latter was Jacob Morgenstern, a Holocaust survivor who became Crownsville’s superintendent in 1947, and who recruited a group of fellow survivors to serve as staff.

It’s hard not to read Madness without a mingled sense of anger and sadness, as Hylton patiently chronicles the decades when Black patients received substandard care in an overcrowded, understaffed hospital that deemed them less worthy of quality treatment than Maryland’s white mentally ill, even using some patients as subjects in scientific studies without their consent. The hospital was not desegregated until 1963, but in the ’60s and ’70s, as the approach to treating mental illness focused on shifting patients from large institutions like Crownsville to community mental health centers, its former patients were released into the population without access to the resources they needed to make that transition successfully.

Hylton says that what kept driving her to tell Crownsville’s anguished history was the door it opened into her own family’s painful past. She twines an institutional story with a deeply personal one, unearthing the stories of her cousin Maynard and great-grandfather Clarence, whose lives were tragically impacted by mental illness and then largely written out of her family’s history. “I’m going to resurrect Maynard and Clarence,” she says. “I’m going to give their lives some dignity. I’m going to give their struggles some context that wasn’t there decades ago.” Indeed, Hylton reveals, excavating these stories encouraged some family members to seek therapy to heal their own psychological wounds.

Read our starred review of Madness by Antonia Hylton.

The Maryland legislature has appropriated an initial $30 million for Anne Arundel County to turn the hospital grounds into a memorial, park and museum. Local historian and community organizer Janice Hayes-Williams has created an annual service she calls “Say My Name” at the site, to recall the some 1,700 patients buried there.

Hylton brings Madness to a moving climax with a scene she says “just poured out of me,” describing the 2022 commemoration at the onsite cemetery. On an April morning, she followed in the steps of community elders, clutching multicolored rose petals and a piece of paper bearing the name of Frances Clayton, a woman from Baltimore who died at Crownsville in 1924 at age 41. Kneeling down to place the petals on the ground, Hylton pressed her palm to the ground “to feel the pulse of the earth.” She writes that at that moment, she thought, “They’ve been waiting for us.”

“If I can inspire even just one family to have some of the conversations my family has been able to have as a result of this reporting, that’s what I want,” she says. The responses of some of her early readers “have already made me feel very whole, even with a story that is heartbreaking. In addition to putting years of reporting on the page, I put my heart out there.”

Photo of Antonia Hylton by Mark Clennon.

The Emmy Award-winning journalist chronicles the decades-long history of Crownsville State Hospital, where patients lived in prisonlike conditions.
STARRED REVIEW

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Beloved and buzzy authors such as Tia Williams, Francis Spufford and Katherine Arden took new and exciting directions in February!
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The author of the marvelous Winterlight trilogy makes her grand return to historical fantasy with this haunting tale set during World War I. Former nurse Laura Iven’s parents recently died in an accident, and her brother, Freddie, was declared missing in the trenches. But what actually happened to Freddie is far stranger, involving a mysterious […]

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In 1911, 12 Black men were delivered to the forest in rural Maryland and began building their new residence, the State Hospital for the Negro Insane. During its near century of existence, the hospital (re-named Crownsville) held patients in prisonlike conditions without offering them adequate medical attention, food, space or safety. In Madness: Race and […]

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Award-winning author Amber McBride teams up with acclaimed poets Taylor Byas and Erica Martin to curate an electric, extraordinary lineup of contemporary and classic Black poetry for young readers.

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Beloved and buzzy authors such as Tia Williams, Francis Spufford and Katherine Arden took new and exciting directions in February!
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Almost from the moment it docked in Mobile Bay, Alabama, much has been written about the Clotilda, the schooner that brought 110 captive Africans to the U.S. in 1860, more than five decades after the slave trade had been outlawed. The illegal voyage was conducted with stealth, but the arrival of the ship was an open secret that drew international headlines, though no punishment for the wealthy enslavers responsible. Interest in “the last slave ship” gradually waned until the late 2010s, when the search for (and eventual discovery of) the ship’s wreckage spurred a new cycle of research and media interest, including the first publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s 1920s interviews with survivor Kossula Lewis.

Historian Hannah Durkin’s considerable scholarship draws on these sources and others in The Survivors of the Clotilda: The Lost Stories of the Last Captives of the American Slave Trade. She cuts through the myths around this notorious story while keeping a tight focus on the 103 surviving young adults and children, whose lives were forever changed by displacement, family separation and enslavement.  

Durkin has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Nottingham and has long focused on the history of transatlantic slavery. In 2020, her research revealed that the last living survivor was not Lewis, as previously thought, but Matilda McCrear, who was just 2 years old when she, her mother and five siblings were kidnapped from their West African village. Matilda, her mother and sisters ended up on the Clotilda; she never saw her two brothers again. 

That is just one of many painful moments for the survivors, who endured five years of enslavement. After the Civil War, they requested repatriation to Benin, to no avail. Though they mourned their homeland, they found ways to carry on their language and traditions. Some founded Africatown, a community on the outskirts of Mobile that became a thriving all-Black enclave. Others ended up elsewhere in the Black Belt, including Gee’s Bend, a famous wellspring of quilting art that draws heavily from West African influences. 

Because it tells the stories of so many people in so much detail, The Survivors of the Clotilda is dense and can lack a clear narrative thread. Yet this multitude of stories allows readers to see a variety of reactions to and experiences of enslavement, turning the Clotilda survivors into a microcosm of the nearly 13 million Africans who were kidnapped during the transatlantic slave trade. This authoritative work will be appreciated by anyone looking for a comprehensive account of one of history’s most infamous moments.

Hannah Durkin’s authoritative The Survivors of the Clotilda cuts through the myths around the notorious last slave ship to dock in the United States.

In telling the story of Maryland’s Crownsville Hospital, Emmy Award-winning NBC News correspondent Antonia Hylton illuminates a troubling chapter in America’s treatment of its Black citizens. Readers of Madness: Race and Insanity in a Jim Crow Asylum will come away from Hylton’s disquieting book with a keen knowledge of our country’s profound historical failings in mental health care, as well as the persistence of these failings when they are compounded with racism today.

In March 1911, 12 Black men were delivered to a forest in rural Maryland just northwest of the city of Annapolis. For the next three years, their task was to construct the asylum that would house them, then called the State Hospital for the Negro Insane. At the hospital’s height in the mid-20th century, some 2,700 patients, including children, lived in “prisonlike conditions,” overcrowded and understaffed, at times with “one doctor per 225 patients.” Hylton traces the history of Crownsville over 93 years until its closure in 2004, revealing that even as some of its leaders strove to implement more humane policies, the hospital’s fundamental flaws persisted.

Hylton began work on the project that became this book a decade ago while a student at Harvard University. In 2014, she first accessed records stored in the Maryland State Archives, but these only partially revealed Crownsville’s dismal history—any records dating before 1960 were allegedly destroyed. To supplement her extensive archival research, she relied on reporting from Black-owned publications and conducted more than 40 interviews. Among her most fruitful conversations were ones with Paul Lurz, a former chief of social services who became an unofficial records preservationist, especially as the institution approached its final days; and Sonia King, a onetime patient who finished her education after her recovery and returned to Crownsville as a therapeutic recreation specialist.

In Hylton’s author’s note, she is candid about her inspiration for this research: Her own family history of mental illness motivated her to uncover where racial injustice and mental illness intersect. She interviewed family members in the process, writing, “I wanted to model the kind of self-exploration and judgment-free discussion that I hope my book inspires in others.”

Hylton’s account of the mistreatment of generations of Black patients at Crownsville and the callous approach of many caregivers and public officials makes for painful, but essential, reading. Madness is an unsparing reckoning with a fraught past and a clear-eyed call for a more responsible, compassionate future.

Read our interview with Antonia Hylton.

Antonia Hylton’s Madness offers an unsparing reckoning with history as it excavates an infamous mental hospital for Black patients.
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Ilyon Woo’s Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom tells the story of Ellen and William Craft, an enslaved husband and wife who—thanks to a courageous plan—fled Georgia in 1848. Ellen disguised herself as a white enslaver, while William pretended to be her captive, and together, they traveled to the Northern free states while successfully evading the authorities. News of their escape made them famous even as they faced new obstacles. Thoroughly researched and beautifully executed, Woo’s narrative explores themes of loyalty, courage and identity, making it a rewarding pick for book clubs.

Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad by Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Foner traces the development of the antislavery movement in the early 1800s, especially in New York City, which gave rise to the underground railroad—the secret system that allowed scores of enslaved people to escape the South prior to the Civil War. Foner writes with authority and an eye for detail. Drawing upon new source materials, he documents the efforts of underground railroad agents, courageous abolitionists and determined freedom seekers to provide a revelatory look at a seminal chapter in American history.  

In Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero, journalist Cate Lineberry chronicles the extraordinary achievements of Robert Smalls. In 1862, Smalls, an enslaved man in South Carolina, took over a Confederate ship in Charleston Harbor, secretly brought his family members aboard and delivered the boat to Union forces, thereby securing their release from slavery. Smalls later participated in naval actions and went on to serve in the House of Representatives. Lineberry pays tribute to a remarkable leader in this meticulous account of Smalls’ life.

Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War assesses the rise of slavery and the rift it caused across the nation, demonstrating that freedom seekers were instrumental in bringing attention to the horrors of the institution. Delbanco looks at watershed moments, like the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, offering fresh perspectives on how they affected the country. Reading groups can dig into rich discussion topics like the notion of justice and slavery’s lasting impact on society.

Commemorate Black History Month with these odes to freedom.
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When civil rights activist Medgar Evers met the love of his life, Myrlie Louise Beasley, the 25-year-old had graduated from college and fought in World War II. Myrlie, 17, was a gifted singer and pianist. They married a year later, on Christmas Eve 1951, forming a bond that is the heart of Joy-Ann Reid’s moving biography, Medgar and Myrlie: Medgar Evers and the Love Story That Awakened America.

Readers familiar with Reid’s MSNBC show, “The ReidOut,” will recognize the passionate voice that fervently guides the narrative. This love story, she writes, is also about Medgar’s “deep and unfaltering love for Mississippi,” as well as “the higher love it took for Black Americans to love America and to fight for it, even in a state that butchered more Black bodies via lynching than any other.” The Everses could have easily joined the northern exodus of many Black families to more hospitable places, but the couple wanted to raise their children in their home state, fighting to obtain the basic human rights that they were denied.

Reid argues that Medgar’s accomplishments have been overshadowed by the many events and assassinations that took place after he was gunned down in his carport in 1963, leaving the quiet, formidable Myrlie to raise their three children and carry on her husband’s legacy. But after reading this book, readers will long remember Medgar’s courage, as well as Myrlie’s devotion and bravery—especially since the couple knew he was likely to be the victim of an assassination attempt. The details are searing: Their house had no front door because that might have left them too vulnerable, and the children regularly practiced shooting drills in their own home, diving to the floor and crawling soldier-style to the safety of the bathtub, preparing for the horrors that soon arrived on their doorstep.

Reid draws on a variety of sources, including her own recent interviews with Myrlie. She portrays a sweeping history of Civil Rights activism, describing clashing strategies and factions, including the fact that the national office of the NAACP refused to provide Medgar with the security protection that might have saved his life. Myrlie never stopped fighting to have her husband’s killer prosecuted. It took 30 years for Klansman Byron De La Beckwith to be convicted of homicide and sentenced to life in prison; without Myrlie, justice would never have prevailed.

Page by page, Medgar and Myrlie paints unforgettable portraits of two American heroes who faced American racism with unimaginable courage.

Page by page, Joy-Ann Reid’s Medgar and Myrlie paints unforgettable portraits of Medgar and Myrlie Evers, two American heroes who faced American racism with unimaginable courage.
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Edda L. Fields-Black’s extraordinary Combee: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee River Raid, and Black Freedom During the Civil War will not be for every reader. It is long and very detailed. Reading it is sometimes like watching the slow, painstaking process of an archaeological dig—but readers who stick with the book will come away satisfied by Fields-Black’s patient unearthing.

The event at the center of her excavation is the June 20, 1863, Combahee River Raid. During that pre-dawn attack, 300 Black Union soldiers torched seven South Carolina rice plantations along a 15-mile stretch of the river, causing millions of dollars of damage to crops and property and striking “fear into the heart of the rebellion.” Their guide was Harriet Tubman—today known around the world for her work in the Underground Railroad, but less so for her courageous military history. With Tubman acting as intermediary, 746 men, women and children fled to the river’s edge and boarded the Union boats to escape slavery. The raid served notice that Black men—both formerly enslaved and free—could become effective, disciplined Union soldiers.

These events have been narrated elsewhere, but never with such a passion for factual depth and precision. Combee is often revelatory. The author of Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora, Fields-Black conveys that the South Carolina rice economy was essential to the Confederacy and involved remarkable feats of technology and engineering, much of them performed by enslaved people taken from rice growing regions of Africa. Fields-Black’s approach to the Combahee River Raid also provides insight into the remarkable abilities of Tubman to communicate across linguistic and cultural barriers and to move stealthily through the South unnoticed.

Prior to this account, many of these freedom seekers had been lost to history. Most, like Tubman, were illiterate and did not record their experiences; plantation records were destroyed in the raid. Through herculean research and cross-referencing of land, bank, U.S. Army pension and slavery transaction records, Fields-Black is able to name names (including her great-great-great grandfather Hector Fields) and offer readers a sense of who these people were and what their lives were like. Combee holds many additional revelatory threads and insights within its depths, but this act of resurrection alone makes the book profoundly important.

Edda L. Fields-Black’s revelatory Combee narrates the 1863 Combahee River Raid, in which Harriet Tubman led Black soldiers to liberate more than 700 enslaved people.
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Dr. Deborah Plant is an independent scholar of African American Literature and Africana Studies and a former Africana and English professor at the University of South Florida. She is an expert on the life and works of Zora Neale Hurston and edited Baracoon, Hurston’s posthumously published account of the last survivor of the transatlantic slave trade. She is not, however, a historian.

Yet Plant’s latest book, Of Greed and Glory: In Pursuit of Freedom of All is in large part a work of historical nonfiction. In it, she explores how the wording of the 13th Amendment set the stage for the incarceration of millions of African Americans, who in turn provided unpaid labor that enriched their captors. Intended to prohibit slavery, the 13th Amendment exempts “the duly convicted” from its protections, that is, those who have been convicted of a crime. Plant establishes a direct line from this loophole through the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws to today’s mass incarceration, which disproportionately imprisons Black people. In other words, far from prohibiting slavery, the 13th Amendment enabled it to continue under the color of law.

While Of Greed and Glory is grounded in historical fact, it is not a history. Instead, it is a deeply subjective book, drenched with the sorrow and rage Plant feels about her brother’s unjust lifetime sentence for rape he did not commit. Most historians avoid subjectivity, but here, subjectivity is the point. The inhumanity and degradation resulting from the exploitation of the “duly convicted” clause results in the objectification of wide swaths of the population. By sharing her brother’s experience, Plant asserts that he and others like him have the right to be the autonomous sovereigns of their own lives, and not the anonymous targets of an unjust system.

This is an emotional and passionate book, raw in its grief and anger, but also imbued with hope for redemption. Based on objective historical fact and subjective experience, Of Greed and Glory has the power of a sermon and the urgency of a manifesto.

Deborah G. Plant’s indictment of America’s criminal justice system, Of Greed and Glory, has the power of a sermon and the urgency of a manifesto.
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Jami Attenberg’s guide to writing, Derek B. Miller’s World War II art heist and Abbott Kahler’s thriller debut are among January’s top reads.
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The written narratives of enslaved people offer a window into circumstances that are, to most of us, unimaginable. These vital documents immortalize the names of their authors: Frederick Douglass, Solomon Northup and Harriet Jacobs, among them. But one woman wrote anonymously, perhaps trusting history to keep her secret until it was safe for her identity to be revealed. In The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts: The True Story of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Harvard University professor Gregg Hecimovich sets out to find the woman who wrote The Bondwoman’s Narrative, an unpublished manuscript bought at auction by renowned scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2001. Hecimovich relies on the scholarship of Gates and others to celebrate the life and work of the first Black female novelist, Hannah Bond—more than a century after her death.

Scholars have suggested other candidates to fit the bondwoman’s identity—women who walked similar paths from slavery to freedom in the antebellum South of North Carolina, Virginia and Washington. Yet Hecimovich successfully braids together the fictitious details of the novel’s protagonist with Bond’s autobiography, leaving little doubt about the truth. Thanks to his deep research—and despite remaining gaps in the historical record—the titular bondwoman comes vividly to life.

As a “domestic servant,” Bond was at the mercy of her enslavers, who sexually abused her and cruelly severed her family ties—a practice especially rampant after the 1807 Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, when slave owners increasingly forced their captives to reproduce and then sold their children. Bond lost her mother and her child, but she held onto her hunger to learn and become literate. She especially leaned on Charles Dickens and Bleak House for help in creating her writing.

The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts is a vivid introduction to America’s first Black female novelist.
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Sixty-seven years after the savage murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, his cousin still seeks some kind of justice. Haunted by the 1955 hate crime that ignited the civil rights movement, Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr. brings everything and everyone back to life in A Few Days Full of Trouble: Revelations on the Journey to Justice for My Cousin and Best Friend, Emmett Till. The title comes from the Bible—“Mortals, born of woman, are of few days and full of trouble” (Job 14:1, NIV)—and is aptly applied to the short life and violent death of 14-year-old Till, while also ironically relating to the decades of delayed and denied justice that followed.

Till’s murder became international news when his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on an open casket at the boy’s funeral, inviting the world to see her mutilated son. People fainted, the press raged—and yet the two white men accused of his murder were soon acquitted by an all-white jury. Not that the men worried about their fate; during their trial, they were allowed to leave their jail cells for supper with their families, carrying guns. Four months later, Look magazine published “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi” by William Bradford Huie, which featured an exclusive interview with Till’s acquitted killers, Roy Bryant and his half brother, J.W. Milam. Milam admitted that they shot Till, tied a gin fan around his neck and rolled him into the river. Their confession earned them $4,000 and had no significant consequences.

Several investigations by the FBI and Department of Justice ensued, hindered by possibly racist politics and questionable sources. In 2017, Timothy Tyson published a bestselling book that contained a quotation from Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman who claimed that Till had accosted her at the grocery store, motivating her husband and brother-in-law to pursue and eventually murder Till. In the quote, Donham recanted part of her original story. Or did she? As the Mississippi district attorney worked to confirm the quote in Tyson’s book, evidence of the author’s conversation with Donham vanished—if it ever existed.

Parker, with the help of his co-author, Christopher Benson, takes a hard look at everything that has transpired since 1955, including Parker’s own feelings of guilt. He was there the night Bryant and Milam came for Till, but he survived and went on to become a barber, minister and major force behind the family’s effort to achieve justice and right the record. His is a vivid chronicle of racism in America, an intense read that may make some readers uncomfortable. Perhaps that is the point. 

Anti-lynching bills struggled through Congress for years after Till’s murder. Finally, in March of 2022, President Joe Biden signed into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching a federal hate crime. As Benson writes in an afterword, “the work to achieve justice has just begun.”

The story of Emmett Till’s violent death in 1955 is retold by his cousin Wheeler Parker Jr., the force behind decades of attempts to achieve justice and right the record.
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You may have learned in high school that the post-Civil War Reconstruction was an inevitable failure. In her latest book, I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction, historian Kidada E. Williams demonstrates that, far from dying a natural death, Reconstruction was destroyed in a not-so-secret war waged against Black citizens.

Williams argues that the end of Reconstruction was the explicit goal of Confederates who refused to accept their military defeat. Abetted by war-weary white Northerners who wanted to put the Civil War behind them, a president who had no interest in securing civil rights for Black people and authorities who didn’t care to enforce the law, armed militias and Klansmen engaged in a concerted battle to destroy Black citizens who voted, ran for office or merely owned and farmed their own land. These white aggressors invaded homes and subjected Black Americans to a host of crimes, from arson and torture to rape and murder. The destruction of property alone amounted to millions of dollars in today’s currency, while the damage to victims, their families and their communities remains incalculable.

Williams, an associate professor of history at Wayne State University, lays out her case with forensic precision. She writes with authority about the political and social circumstances that enabled these attacks, as well as the impact that these acts of terror had on Black people’s health and financial security, for both the injured parties and the generations following them. But her most compelling evidence comes from the victims themselves: witness testimonies from the Congressional hearings on the Ku Klux Klan in 1871 and transcripts of Works Progress Administration interviews with the last survivors of slavery in the 1930s. 

These testimonies make for harrowing reading, but that is no reason not to read them. Previously enslaved people recounted the horrors of these “visits”—the deaths of loved ones, the rapes, the lingering physical and psychic wounds, the loss of hard-earned wealth—with dignity and courage, knowing full well the risks they ran by testifying. Williams honors their suffering by placing them at the center of this important, overdue correction to the historical record.

Kidada E. Williams demonstrates that the progress of the post-Civil War Reconstruction was hampered by a not-so-secret war against Black citizens.

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