Different Stories: The African-American Experience in Non-fiction

Here is a selection of books about various aspects of Black history - from slave days to the struggles of today's African-Americans. Many of these works are written from perspectives slightly different from the usual.

Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom: The Institution of Slavery As Seen on the Plantation and in the Home of the Planter

By Louis Hughes

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"Louis Hughes was born a slave in Virginia and at age 12 was sold away from his mother, whom he never saw again. After a few interim owners, he was sold to a wealthy slaveowner who had a home near Memphis and plantation nearby in Mississippi. Hughes lived there as a house servant until near the end of the Civil War, when he escaped to the Union lines and then, in a daring adventure with the paid help of two Union soldiers, returned to the plantation for his wife. The couple made their way to Canada and after the war to Chicago and Detroit, eventually settling in Milwaukee. There Hughes became relatively comfortable as a hotel attendant and as an entrepreneur laundry operator. Self-educated and eloquent, Hughes wrote and privately published his memoir in 1897."

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The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson's Boston

By Albert J. von Frank

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"Before 1854, most Northerners managed to ignore the distant unpleasantness of slavery. But that year an escaped Virginia slave, Anthony Burns, was captured and brought to trial in Boston--and never again could Northerners look the other way. This is the story of Burns's trial and of how, arising in abolitionist Boston just as the incendiary Kansas-Nebraska Act took effect, it revolutionized the moral and political climate in Massachusetts and sent shock waves through the nation.

"In a searching cultural analysis, Albert J. von Frank draws us into the drama and the consequences of the case. He introduces the individuals who contended over the fate of the barely literate twenty-year-old runaway slave--figures as famous as Richard Henry Dana Jr., the defense attorney, as colorful as Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Bronson Alcott, who led a mob against the courthouse where Burns was held, and as intriguing as Moncure Conway, the Virginia-born abolitionist who spied on Burns's master.

"The story is one of desperate acts, even murder--a special deputy slain at the courthouse door--but it is also steeped in ideas. Von Frank links the deeds and rhetoric surrounding the Burns case to New England Transcendentalism, principally that of Ralph Waldo Emerson. His book is thus also a study of how ideas relate to social change, exemplified in the art and expression of Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Theodore Parker, Bronson Alcott, Walt Whitman, and others.

"Situated at a politically critical moment--with the Whig party collapsing and the Republican arising, with provocations and ever hotter rhetoric intensifying regional tensions--the case of Anthony Burns appears here as the most important fugitive slave case in American history. A stirring work of intellectual and cultural history, this book shows how the Burns affair brought slavery home to the people of Boston and brought the nation that much closer to the Civil War."

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Slaves in the Family

By Edward Ball

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"In 1698, Elias Ball arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, from England to take possession of his inheritance: part of a plantation and twenty-five slaves. Elias and his progeny built a slave dynasty that lasted for 167 years, buying more than a dozen plantations along the Cooper River near Charleston, selling rice known as 'Carolina Gold,' and assembling close to 4,000 African and African American slaves before 1865, when Union troops arrived on the lawns of the Balls' estates to force emancipation.

"In Slaves in the Family, Edward Ball, a descendant of Elias, has written a nonfiction American saga like no other. Part history, part journey of discovery, this is the story of black and white families who lived side by side for five generations -- and a tale of everyday Americans confronting their vexed inheritance together. Using the copious plantation records of his family, supplemented by both black and white oral tradition, Ball uncovers the story of the people who lived on his ancestors' lands -- the violence and opulence, the slave uprisings and escapes, the dynastic struggles, and the mulatto children of Ball slaveholders and 'Ball slaves.' He identifies and travels to a prison in Africa from which his family once bought workers. Most remarkably of all, Ball also locates and visits some of the nearly 12,000 descendants of Ball slaves and reveals how slavery lives on in black and white memory and experience."

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"Negro President"--Jefferson and the Slave Power

By Garry Wills

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Wills argues that the U.S. Constitution's three-fifths clause for slave "representation" in Congress and the Electoral College gave slave holders the edge in winning most presidential elections, controlling the federal government, and maintaining slavery by throttling personal liberties.

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An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America

By Henry Wiencek

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"When George Washington wrote his will, he made the startling decision to set his slaves free; earlier he had said that holding slaves was his 'only unavoidable subject of regret.' In this groundbreaking work, Henry Wiencek explores the founding father's engagement with slavery at every stage of his life--as a Virginia planter, soldier, politician, president, and statesman. Washington was born and raised among blacks and mixed-race people; he and his wife had blood ties to the slave community.

"Yet as a young man he bought and sold slaves without scruple, even raffled off children to collect debts (an incident ignored by earlier biographers). Then, on the Revolutionary battlefields where he commanded both black and white troops, Washington's attitudes began to change."

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The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory

By Scot French

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Rather than presenting a traditional account of the slave rebellion that Turner led, French (African-American studies, U. of Virginia) traces the continuing discourse on race, slavery, America's tradition of revolutionary violence, and what to do with Turner's remains since his hanging in 1831.

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The Negro Cowboys

By Philip Durham and Everett L. Jones

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"More than five thousand Negro cowboys joined the round-ups and served on the ranch crews in the cattleman era of the West. Lured by the open range, the chance for regular wages, and the opportunity to start new lives, they made vital contributions to the transformation of the West. They, their predecessors, and their successors rode on the long cattle drives, joined the cavalry, set up small businesses, fought on both sides of the law. Some of them became famous: Jim Beckwourth, the mountain man; Bill Pickett, king of the rodeo; Cherokee Bill, the most dangerous man in Indian Territory; and Nat Love, who styled himself 'Deadwood Dick.' They could hold their own with any creature, man or beast, that got in the way of a cattle drive. They worked hard, thought fast, and met or set the highest standards for cowboys and range riders."
Originally published in 1965.

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Soldiers of Freedom: An Illustrated History of African Americans in the Armed Forces

By Kai Wright

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Blacks have shouldered arms in defense of the U.S. since the Revolutionary War. This book portrays the military as the front line of the nation's race war as blacks, ambivalent about being simultaneously rebuffed and desperately encouraged to serve, risked their lives.

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Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights--Black Power Movement

By Bettye Collier-Thomas and V.P. Franklin, editors

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"Women were at the forefront of the civil rights struggle, but their indvidiual stories were rarely heard. Only recently have historians begun to recognize the central role women played in the battle for racial equality. In Sisters in the Struggle, we hear about the unsung heroes of the civil rights movements such as Ella Baker, who helped found the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper who took on segregation in the Democratic party (and won), and Septima Clark, who created a network of 'Citizenship Schools' to teach poor Black men and women to read and write and help them to register to vote.

"We learn of Black women's activism in the Black Panther Party where they fought the police, as well as the entrenched male leadership, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where the behind-the-scenes work of women kept the organization afloat when it was under siege. It also includes first-person testimonials from the women who made headlines with their courageous resistance to segregation--Rosa Parks, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and Dorothy Height."

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