During the month of February, we celebrate Black History Month—a time dedicated to remembering the important people and events in African American history. But just how did this observation come about? In February of 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson started a black history week that coincided with both Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass’s birthdays. It wasn’t until 1970 that black educators and students Kent State University proposed a month-long celebration—one that was endorsed by President Gerald Ford, who urged Americans “to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans…”
Though Black History Month celebrates the achievements of African Americans throughout history, it also is a time to remember their struggles. These books highlight the challenges black people have faced, and continue to face, in America, and provide eye-opening perspectives that everyone should read.
MLK: An American Legacy
David J. Garrow’s books give readers a fascinating look at Martin Luther King, Jr. The collection includes the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Bearing the Cross, as well as Protest at Selma and The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the most influential people in history, Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspiring speeches and relentless efforts to enact legal change galvanized the push for racial equality. Where Bearing the Cross focuses on King’s early nonviolent protests against racism and injustice, Protest at Selma highlights the demonstrations that led to the Civil rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Closing out the collection is The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. in which Garrow examines FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s crusade to undermine the power of the civil rights leader.
The Black Calhouns
From house slave to The Wiz, Gail Lumet Buckely traces her own family history. Buckley’s mother, Lena Horne, an iconic actress and nightclub performer of the 20th century, spent over 70 years in the entertainment business while also working as a civil rights activist. Horne’s great-grandfather, meanwhile, was born enslaved, becoming a successful businessman after the Civil War. Over the decades, their family has moved throughout the United States, engaged in major historical moments, and lived meaningful lives.
Though he was a world champion, cyclist Major Taylor was met with racism and unfair treatment at the turn of the century. Written by Conrad and Terry Kerber, with a foreword by Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, Major Taylor tells the incredible story of the little-known athlete’s perseverance and strength in the face of hatred.
Dear Benjamin Banneker
This biography for young readers is a fantastic way to start a conversation about slavery and the history of black people in America with children and teens. Pinkney draws a charming portrait of Benjamin Banneker, a free black man in the 18th century. Banneker, a self-educated astronomer and mathematician, was a highly intelligent man who assisted in surveying the land that would become Washington, D.C., published useful almanacs, and created an improved irrigation system. What he is most remembered for, however, is his exchange of letters with Thomas Jefferson. Banneker challenged the then-secretary of state to account for his support of slavery. This biography is sure to lead to valuable discussion of our history.
Though author E.R. Braithwaite is best known for his autobiographical novel To Sir, With Love, which is based on Braithwaite's experiences as a teacher at a school in the East End of London, Honorary White details his visit to South African in the 1970s. Up until 1973, South African had banned Braithwaite’s books, and once that ban was lifted he visited the country—being given the status of “honorary white.” His book dives deep into the racism against the indigenous black population Braithwaite witnessed during his six weeks there, and examines the nation’s inequality and its white ruling body’s shocking abuse of power.
A surprisingly under-recognized entertainer and activist, Paul Robeson is brought back to life by this detailed and readable biography. Robeson was a highly successful actor and singer, becoming internationally famous in the 1920s thanks to roles in Show Boat, Othello, and more. However, when he became increasingly politically active in the 1940s, roles dried up as Robeson became known as a union man and a member of the Communist Party. Duberman resurrects Robeson’s history, passion, and fire.
A Slave No More
Award-winning author and historian David W. Blight has collected two newly discovered slave narratives and published them together in his book, A Slave No More. Slave narratives are extremely rare, with only 55 known accounts surviving post-Civil War. But recently, the firsthand accounts of John Washington and Wallace Turnage have been discovered. These moving narratives recount the hardship they faced as slaves, and their incredible journeys to freedom. Adding more information to these narratives, Blight provides readers with Washington and Turnage’s full stories.
This 400-year overview of Harlem’s history presents not just its 1920s incarnation as the hub of the Black Renaissance or its late-20th century reputation. Starting from Hudson’s first contact with the natives of Manhattan and running through the beginning of the 21st century, this fascinating tome represents one of the neighborhoods most closely associated with black life and culture in the United States.
From Slave Ship to Harvard
From Yarrow Mamout, stolen away from Guinea and forced onto a slave ship to Maryland to Robert Turner Ford, 1927 graduate of Harvard University, James H. Johnston tells the story of one family’s American experience. Deeply researched and carefully crafted, the story of the Turners will keep you turning every page as you travel through two centuries of history.
Between the World and Me
Written as a letter from Coates to his son, this National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist took the world by storm when it was released in 2015. A candid exploration of racism in America, Coates attempts to answers questions of how to deal with what has happened in our history and move beyond it. Throughout the book, he shares experiences that have shaped him and offers a vision for how the future can be different.
The Story of Ruby Bridges
Though intended for children, The Story of Ruby Bridges, which tells the six-year-old’s courageous tale, is an important book about black history. A lesser-known story, Bridges was ordered by a judge to attend first grade at William Frantz Elementary—an all-white school—in 1960. Upon her arrival, the young girl faced angry parents who refused to send their kids to school if she was attending. The first African American child to attend an all-white school in Louisiana, Bridges went on to be a civil rights activist. The Story of Ruby Bridges is written by Robert Coles—the psychiatrist who counseled Bridges during her first year at William Frantz Elementary.
The New Jim Crow
In legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s book, she argues that though we claim to live in an era of “colorblindness,” black men are still unfairly being hindered by the criminal justice system—either through incarceration or by permanent criminal records. Though Jim Crow laws no longer exist, discrimination against different races has simply turned into discrimination against convicted criminals—even those who committed a minor offense.
Roots: The Saga of an American Family
In 1976, Alex Haley released a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel based on his family’s history. Since then, Roots has become one of the most important books of the 20th century. The books tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an African in the 18th century who is captured and sold into slavery before being transported to America. His harrowing journey was adapted into an Emmy and Gold Globe Award-winning miniseries series in 1977, and was remade again in 2016.
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Featured photo of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Alchetron