Any reading list is idiosyncratic. Here are seven African-American history books I especially recommend. What they have in common is that each reveals a vast amount about black history as part of American history. In one way or another, each of these books has the potential to change how you view American history, western Maryland history, the Civil War, or historic sites. “Enjoy” may be the wrong word–but I hope you’ll relish and appreciate them.
About American history:
The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist. This is a heavy book, but every American should read it. Skim the dry parts if you want. There will be plenty of other parts that sear your soul. It’s imaginative and personal and gut-wrenching. It’s about how the demand for labor in the cotton and sugar south created the internal slave trade, draining enslaved people away from the upper south in a massive forced migration, and how this underpinned the economy and politics of the whole United States. Award-winning.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson. This is an even fatter book. Though it’s more readable in some ways, it’s nearly as painful. It’s about the Great Migration, in which African-Americans fled from the south after the Civil War, looking for a better life in the north and west. Bestseller and award-winning.
About slavery in western Maryland:
Gleanings of Freedom: Free and Slave Labor along the Mason-Dixon Line, 1790-1860, by Max Grivno. This is an academic book, maybe a little dense for the general reader. But it’s full of great stories and hands down the best thing that’s been written about slavery in western and northern Maryland. (It’s about all labor, black and white.) If you have a serious interest in understanding slavery in this region, you should read this book—at least until I finish writing mine!
About the Civil War:
Too Afraid to Cry: Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign, by Kathleen A. Ernst. Short and readable, this is the one book on the list that’s not at least half African-American in focus. But the author does include African-American testimony and perspectives at many points in her book about the most famous event in Washington County’s history. And if you haven’t read this, it’s a really good read.
A Regiment of Slaves: The 4th United States Colored Infantry, 1863-1866, by Edward G. Longacre. If you like military history, this book is for you. The 4th USCI included at least 33 African-American men from Washington County, more than enlisted in any other single unit. Although Longacre mentions no Washington County men by name, he writes a detailed and readable account of their collective Civil War experiences. This book is the best available account of what happened to a black man from Hagerstown or Williamsport when he joined the army to fight in the Civil War.
About historic sites:
Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums, by Jennifer L. Eichstedt and Stephen Small. Published in 2002, this book is a classic in its field, and deservedly so. It examines how the subject of slavery is presented at plantations that are open to the public… and you’ll never see a slave-worked site the same way again. When I used this book in a course, I thought it might be a little difficult for my students, but they loved it. It’s already somewhat out of date in its specifics, but the overall way of seeing things is absolutely relevant. Read it before you visit Mount Vernon, or Monticello, or … Ferry Hill Plantation right here in Washington County.
Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era, by Tiya Miles. This is an easier read, and absolutely fascinating. How does the tourism industry use ghost stories to deal with slavery? The author, a professor of African-American Studies, addresses that question by traveling to various “haunted” southern sites. You’ll have an unexpectedly different view of “ghost tours” after reading this book.
Readers, what African-American history books have been especially meaningful for you? Please share in the comment section below.
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