Black history books 2023

June 13, 2023

Black history is American history

Eight excellent nonfiction books tell true stories of Black persistence and progress.

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Historian Blair LM Kelley writes, “Our national mythos leaves little room for Black workers, or to glean any lessons from their histories. . . . Never mind that from slavery to the present, Black workers have been essential to the nation’s productivity, and indeed . . . to its basic functioning.” The director of the Center for the Study of the American South and co-director of the Southern Futures initiative at the University of North Carolina, Kelley gives a sweeping narrative of 200 years of American history in her engaging and well-documented Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class

Kelley also uses events in the lives of some of her ancestors to tell parts of the larger story. The overwhelming impression throughout is of great tragedy combined with an amazing abundance of courage and resourcefulness in the face of impossible barriers. The author gives primary attention to “a critical era, after southern Emancipation and into the early twentieth century, when the first generations of Black working people carved out a world for themselves.”

Readers will especially learn about Black workers who united to gain political influence. For example, “Washerwomen, or laundresses, occupied a central place in Black life, history, and culture,” Kelley writes. Their work was hard and required great skill. After the Civil War, many laundresses had the independence to work alone and were able to spend more time with their children. They were also able to use their earnings to help support their families and communities by buying houses, building churches and opening businesses—and some were able to organize to improve their situations. In 1881, for example, laundresses in Atlanta, Georgia, and Charlotte, North Carolina, went on strike for better pay and working conditions. Some washerwomen even joined labor protests for other industries, such as the successful streetcar boycott in Richmond, Virginia, in 1904.

Kelley also traces the development and importance of the Pullman porters, Black men who performed a variety of services for railway passengers beginning in 1867. The author writes of their significance, “Easily the most well-traveled Black folks in America, the Pullman porters provided assistance to people seeking opportunity in the North and West, connecting porters’ home folks with jobs, and offering their knowledge about the cities where migrants planned to settle. . . . They bore witness to the violence of lynchings and racial massacres, and also carried copies of Northern Black newspapers to sell to Black residents in the South.”

There is so much more here to interest history lovers. This fine book illuminates the intelligence, sense of community, hard work (often done under deplorable conditions) and resilience of Black workers, who have made crucial contributions to American history.

Black Folk illuminates the intelligence, sense of community, hard work, resilience and courage of the Black working class, whose members have made crucial contributions to American history.
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The most famous moment following the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling is probably the day in 1957 when National Guard intervention was required to get Black students into Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. But that was just one small example of the vast changes that swept through the Jim Crow South. The first court-mandated desegregation in the former Confederacy was actually in Clinton, Tennessee, in 1956—and the effort was just as fraught with violence, fear and fortitude as the more well-known event in Arkansas.

Historian Rachel Louise Martin (Hot, Hot Chicken) first visited Clinton in 2005 as a researcher involved in an oral history project. Her fascination with that town’s story has now culminated in A Most Tolerant Little Town: The Explosive Beginning of School Desegregation, a day-by-day account of the desegregation of Clinton High School. The book’s title is sadly ironic. After desegregation began, it didn’t take long for a racist intimidation campaign to form, including mob assaults and dynamiting.

At the center of Martin’s tale are the 12 Black students who initially integrated Clinton High and who braved threats and violence against them and their families. But another interesting faction stands out in A Most Tolerant Little Town: the significant number of white people who opposed desegregation but opposed lawlessness even more. Their ranks included judges, National Guard leaders, the high school principal, teachers, student football players and jurors.

Little as many white Tennesseans liked it, desegregation was continually enforced. Tellingly, one turning point on the way to the community’s acceptance of desegregation was the conviction, by a local white jury, of the bigoted rabble who attacked a respected white Baptist minister shortly after he said from the pulpit that Black students in Clinton had a right to attend the high school. The Black victims in town seldom got such justice.

For decades, residents were reluctant to reminisce about these events in Clinton, where Black desegregation pioneers continued to interact daily with their former tormentors. Today, the Clinton 12 are honored with statues and a mural. But in her moving conclusion, Martin stresses that de facto segregation is surging across the U.S. and that the challenge to work together for lasting change is as great as ever.

In A Most Tolerant Little Town, Rachel Louise Martin captures the violence, fear and fortitude that accompanied the first court-mandated school desegregation in America.
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In 2018, a group of protestors demanded the removal of a statue in New York City of J. Marion Sims, known as the “father of gynecology.” Sims was given this title for inventing a surgery in the mid-1800s to treat vesico-vaginal fistulas, holes between someone’s vagina and bladder or intestines (or both) that are usually caused by difficult childbirth. He developed his technique through horrific experiments performed on three enslaved women named Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey, without either anesthesia or meaningful consent. Anarcha endured at least 30 experiments, but her condition never improved, mainly because Sims’ approach was ineffective—and frequently fatal. Say Anarcha: A Young Woman, a Devious Surgeon, and the Harrowing Birth of Modern Women’s Health is Guggenheim fellow J.C. Hallman’s dual biography of Sims and Anarcha.

Sims, a shameless self-promoter, provided Hallman with an ample record to work with. His memoirs, articles and newspaper notices (written primarily by Sims himself) make it clear that he was dangerously, violently misogynist and racist. Cloaked by his medical degree and bolstered by a system that transformed human beings into disposable property, Sims was able to perform acts of brutality on Lucy, Betsey and Anarcha with impunity. And they were not his only victims: After perfecting his “cure,” Sims and his adherents maimed or killed women of all classes, from enslaved people to countesses.

Hallman’s greater challenge was reconstructing Anarcha’s life. The structure of chattel slavery ensured that the few references to Anarcha in the historical record merely reflected her status as property, leaving Hallman with the dilemma of how to tell the true story of a woman whom history had almost entirely erased. Historian Tiya Miles confronted a similar issue in All That She Carried, a brilliant reconstruction of the life of another enslaved woman and her descendants. Like Miles, Hallman uses the technique of “creative fabulation”—consulting various oral and written histories from Anarcha’s lifetime to creatively fill in the gaps within an archive distorted by racism and misogyny. The result is a nuanced and sympathetic speculative portrait of a woman who would otherwise remain anonymous.

Double biographies are fairly unusual and tend to be about people who were linked together in the minds of their contemporaries. But Anarcha was not associated with Sims in the public mind because Sims took great pains to ensure that she would not be—not because of any shame he felt about exploiting an enslaved woman but because the recurrence of her fistulas belied Sims’s narrative. Hallman’s determination to bring Anarcha out of obscurity restores her humanity and allows readers to reexamine the corrupt foundations of women’s health care.

Say Anarcha is J.C. Hallman’s dual biography of the so-called “father of gynecology” and the enslaved woman he experimented on without anesthesia or meaningful consent.
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The appalling history of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in Oklahoma is becoming better known, albeit a century later. But journalist Victor Luckerson understands that what happened following those horrific events, as the survivors persevered and rebuilt, is also an important part of this history. In his debut book, Built From the Fire, Luckerson tells the story of the massacre, the people who restored the Greenwood district of Tulsa after that violent night in 1921, and their descendants who continue to fuel and inspire change.

The book is divided into three parts as Luckerson chronicles the last century of Greenwood’s history. Part 1 recounts the district’s beginnings circa 1901, when a segregated slice of oil-rich Tulsa became a destination for Black Americans looking for a future that the Jim Crow South would not deliver. But hope dimmed after the widespread race riots of 1919’s “Red Summer.” Black soldiers returning from World War I, where racism in the military meant menial assignments and segregated units, found that their service also failed to earn them equality at home. Yet Greenwood prospered, with movie theaters, dance halls, restaurants, hotels and a newspaper with a distinctly Black voice.

Luckerson fills every page with humanity distilled from his prodigious research. For example, there’s Dick Rowland, a young Black worker who got caught in a malfunctioning elevator with a white girl on May 30, 1921, the day before the massacre. She screamed, and he was almost lynched. Loula Williams, a successful Black entrepreneur, escaped the mob the night of May 31 but lost almost everything she had built—and later lost her mind. Prominent community member J.H. Goodwin diverted white terrorists from his home possibly because he passed for white.

During the night, Greenwood’s thriving businesses were reduced to smoking rubble. White rioters, including many citizens who were spontaneously deputized as policemen, stormed into the area and dragged people from their homes, shot them in the street and burned everything in their path. Planes even dropped explosives as they flew low over fleeing families. Luckerson holds nothing back in this description of hell, so terrifying that for years, survivors kept silent and such lurid history went untaught. But this, as Luckerson makes clear, was only the beginning.

Part II follows Greenwood’s survivors as they began the daunting task of salvaging, rebuilding and fighting back. Their descendants reclaimed the city’s entrepreneurial spirit while becoming civil rights activists and adamant reformers. Part III brings Greenwood into the still-turbulent present, as Goodwin’s great-granddaughter Regina, a Democratic state representative, pursues a relentless legislative quest for justice. As the search for the massacre’s mass graves continues, recovery from the gentrifying urban-renewal wrecking ball of the 1970s makes progress and demands for reparations intensify, Luckerson’s point is clear: Greenwood is alive again.

Victor Luckerson’s Built From the Fire documents what happened following the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, centering the survivors who persevered and rebuilt.

“On December 5, 1955, a young Black man became one of America’s founding fathers. He was twenty-six years old and knew that the role he was taking carried a potential death penalty.” With these riveting opening sentences, journalist and author Jonathan Eig pulls readers into King: A Life, his vibrantly written biography of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. This monumental book takes King down from his pedestal, revealing his flaws, needs, dreams, hopes and weariness.

King: A Life draws on recently released FBI documents, as well as other new materials, including audiotapes recorded by Coretta Scott King in the months after her husband’s death, an unpublished memoir by King’s father and unaired television footage. In cinematic fashion, Eig follows King from his childhood through his seminary and graduate school days, his marriage and his steady insistence on the reformation of a society broken by racism. As Eig points out, King developed a rhetorical style and shaped a new moral vision when he spoke to the crowd gathered at Holt Street Baptist Church to rally in support of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. “On this night, King found a new voice,” he writes. “He discovered or sensed that his purpose was not to instruct or educate; his purpose was to prophesize. With a booming voice and strident words, he marked the path for himself and for a movement.”

Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King felt that the work he had begun in Montgomery was validated, but he recognized that the movement would be incomplete if it remained confined to the South. King desired to “root out racism” all over America, Eig writes, in all its “hidden and subtle and covert disguises.” He also began to turn his attention to issues beyond civil rights for Black Americans, focusing on poverty and the war in Vietnam. By the time he arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 to support the sanitation workers’ strike, King was exhausted, wondering whether the “arc of justice would not bend toward freedom.” In spite of his fatigue and the lack of broader racial reform in the U.S., King refused to give up hope. On the last day of his life, he thundered in his “Promised Land” speech, “I may not get there with you. But . . . we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”

Eig candidly asserts that “in hallowing King we have hollowed him.” King: A Life makes him a real human being again, one who had affairs, smoked and drank, got angry and even plagiarized. But Eig encourages readers to “embrace the complicated King, the flawed King, the human King, the radical King” if we are to achieve the kind of change King himself preached in America.

Jonathan Eig’s monumental biography takes Martin Luther King Jr. down from his pedestal, revealing his flaws, needs, dreams, hopes and weariness.
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John Randolph, a wealthy enslaver from Virginia, member of Congress for almost 30 years, strong defender of states’ rights and prominent public speaker, died in 1833. In the will that he created in 1821, he stipulated the freeing of every enslaved person on his plantation, which would amount to one of the largest manumissions in American history: 383 people. Before this could happen, however, the court system had to deal with the legality of a will Randolph created in 1832 that did not grant those people freedom. To determine the legality of the latter will, the courts had to consider Randolph’s mental state—whether he was “mad” or sane when he prepared it. Meanwhile, the enslaved people whose freedom was on the line waited anxiously for 13 years for a final decision. When that moment finally came, their resettlement and “freedom” in Ohio turned to disappointment and tragedy. Historian and lawyer Gregory May brilliantly captures these extraordinary events with his compelling, meticulously documented and beautifully written A Madman’s Will: John Randolph, Four Hundred Slaves, and the Mirage of Freedom.

Randolph was not only “a political celebrity, but a colorful character of the first order,” May writes—someone who “always craved public attention” and who, over the course of his political career, both defended and denounced slavery. Two of his early wills, prepared in 1819 and 1821, “freed all of Randolph’s slaves and provided funds to resettle them outside Virginia,” May writes. However, Randolph’s final will did not offer anyone freedom but instead indicated that most of the people enslaved on his plantation would be sold.

May includes a fascinating look at the legal and medical framework the courts used to examine Randolph’s sanity after his death. There were many stories about his “peculiarities,” including “fluctuations between excitement and dejection, enthusiasm and gloom,” especially during the last 10 years of his life. A Madman’s Will also includes other interesting descriptions of testimony, scandal and greed, including entertaining depictions of disappointed relatives who had hoped to be heirs.

In the end, May writes, neither Randolph nor the people he enslaved “could escape the underlying pull of prevailing white assumptions about race and social order.” Many white people could not comprehend the plight of people who were enslaved and were indifferent about their predicament. And so when those 383 formerly enslaved Black people arrived in Mercer County in the “free” state of Ohio, they were met by a white mob—and white residents’ violent objections to their settlement continued from there.

May’s account shows that “freedom” of any kind was virtually impossible for Black people in the United States in the early 1800s, no matter how carefully planned. This important book should be of interest to a wide range of readers interested in American history.

In the compelling and beautifully written A Madman’s Will, Gregory May captures the story of 383 enslaved people who waited 13 years to find out whether or not they were free.

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