While Juneteenth has been celebrated for years and years, a lot of people don’t fully understand the significance behind it. And to many people’s surprise, it only became a recognized federal holiday in 2021. A great way to help heal the future is to learn more about the ways systemic racism is rooted in our country’s history. Having a better understanding of slavery and its function in the American economy sets the stage for an appreciation of Juneteenth. Because of this, we have compiled a list of books that can help you better understand the significance of Juneteenth.
Sweet Taste of Liberty by W. Caleb McDaniel
Above all, Sweet Taste of Liberty is a portrait of an extraordinary individual as well as a searing reminder of the lessons of her story, which establish beyond question the connections between slavery and the prison system that rose in its place.
This book is the unforgettable saga of one enslaved woman’s fight for justice and reparations. Born into slavery, Henrietta Wood was taken to Cincinnati and legally freed in 1848. However, in 1853, the Kentucky deputy sheriff, Zebulon Ward colluded with Wood’s employer, abducted her, and sold her back into bondage. She remained enslaved throughout the Civil War, giving birth to a son in Mississippi and never forgetting who had put her in this position.
By 1869, Wood had obtained her freedom for a second time and returned to Cincinnati, where she sued Ward for damages in 1870. Astonishingly, after eight years of litigation, Wood won her case: in 1878, a Federal jury awarded her $2,500. The decision stuck on appeal. More important than the amount, which was the largest ever awarded by an American court in restitution for slavery, was the fact that any money was awarded at all. Wood’s case was truly historical for reparations in America.
On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed
In its eloquence and clear presentation of history, On Juneteenth vitally revises conventional renderings of Texas and national history. As our nation finally recognizes June 19th as a national holiday, this book is both an essential account and a stark reminder that the fight for equality is exigent and ongoing.
Weaving together American history, dramatic family chronicle, and searing episodes of memoir, Annette Gordon-Reed’s On Juneteenth provides a historian’s view of the country’s long road to Juneteenth, recounting both its origins in Texas and the enormous hardships that African-Americans have endured in the century since, from Reconstruction through Jim Crow and beyond. All too aware of the stories of cowboys, ranchers, and oilmen that have long dominated the lore of the Lone Star State, Gordon-Reed―herself a Texas native and the descendant of enslaved people brought to Texas as early as the 1820s―forges a new and profoundly truthful narrative of her home state, with implications for us all.
Combining personal anecdotes with poignant facts gleaned from the annals of American history, Gordon-Reed shows how, from the earliest presence of Black people in Texas to the day in Galveston on June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger announced the end of legalized slavery in the state, African-Americans played an integral role in the Texas story.
Stony the Road by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
An essential tour through one of America’s fundamental historical tragedies, Stony the Road is also a story of heroic resistance, as figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells fought to create a counter-narrative and culture inside the lion’s mouth. A sobering tale of the reality of the reconstruction, white supremacy, and rise of Jim Crow laws that plagued America for years.
The abolition of slavery in the aftermath of the Civil War is a familiar story, as is the Civil Rights revolution that transformed the nation after World War II. But the century in between remains a mystery: if emancipation sparked a new birth of freedom in Lincoln’s America, why was it necessary to march in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s America? In this new book, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of our leading chroniclers of the African-American experience, seeks to answer that question in a history that moves from the Reconstruction Era to the nadir of the African-American experience under Jim Crow, through to World War I and the Harlem Renaissance.
The story Gates tells begins with great hope, with the Emancipation Proclamation, Union victory, and the liberation of nearly 4 million enslaved African-Americans. Until 1877, the federal government, goaded by the activism of Frederick Douglass and many others, tried at various turns to sustain their new rights. But the terror unleashed by white paramilitary groups in the former Confederacy, combined with deteriorating economic conditions and a loss of Northern will, restored “home rule” to the South. The retreat from Reconstruction was followed by one of the most violent periods in our history, with thousands of black people murdered or lynched and many more afflicted by the degrading impositions of Jim Crow segregation.
My Vanishing Country by Bakari Sellers
Part memoir, part historical and cultural analysis, My Vanishing Country is an eye-opening journey through the South’s past, present, and future. It is also a love letter to fatherhood—to Sellers’ father, his lodestar, whose life lessons have shaped him, and to his newborn twins, who he hopes will embrace the Sellers family name and honor its legacy.
Anchored in Bakari Sellers’ hometown of Denmark, South Carolina, the country illuminates the pride and pain that continues to fertilize the soil of one of the poorest states in the nation. He traces his father’s rise to become a Civil Rights hero and member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As a friend of Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King, Sellers explores his father’s plight of the South’s dwindling rural, black working class—many of whom can trace their ancestry back for seven generations.
In his poetic personal history, we are awakened to the crisis affecting the other forgotten men and women the media seldom acknowledges. For Sellers, these are his family members, neighbors, and friends. He humanizes the struggles that shape their lives: to gain access to healthcare as rural hospitals disappear; to make ends meet as the factories they have relied on shut down and move overseas; to hold on to precious traditions as their towns erode; to forge a path forward without succumbing to despair.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
Both a riveting microcosm and a major assessment, The Warmth of Other Suns is a bold, remarkable, and riveting work, a superb account of unrecognized immigration within our own land. Wilkerson brilliantly captures their first treacherous and exhausting cross-country trips by car and train and their new lives in colonies that grew into ghettos, as well as how they changed these cities with southern food, faith, and culture and improved them with discipline, drive, and hard work.
From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. Wilkerson compares this epic migration to the migrations of other peoples in history. She interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to new data and official records, to write this definitive and vividly dramatic account of how these American journies unfolded, altering our cities, our country, and ourselves.
With stunning historical detail, Wilkerson tells this story through the lives of three unique individuals: Ida Mae Gladney, who in 1937 left sharecropping and prejudice in Mississippi for Chicago, where she achieved quiet blue-collar success and, in old age, voted for Barack Obama when he ran for an Illinois Senate seat; sharp and quick-tempered George Starling, who in 1945 fled Florida for Harlem, where he endangered his job fighting for Civil Rights, saw his family fall, and finally found peace in God; and Robert Foster, who left Louisiana in 1953 to pursue a medical career, the personal physician to Ray Charles as part of a successful medical career, which allowed him to purchase a grand home where he often threw exuberant parties.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Written by one of today’s most exciting thinkers and writers, The Water Dancer is a propulsive, transcendent work that restores the humanity of those from whom everything was stolen. This is the dramatic story of an atrocity inflicted on generations of women, men, and children—the violent and capricious separation of families—and the war they waged to simply make lives with the people they loved.
Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her—but was gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. This brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he’s ever known.
So begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia’s proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the Deep South to dangerously idealistic movements in the North. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.
Below are some book recommendations to help younger readers better understand Juneteenth.
Freedom Over Me by Ashley Bryan
Through fierce paintings and expansive poetry, Bryan imagines and interprets the lives of 11 people on a plantation, the life their owner knows nothing about—their dreams and pride in knowing that they were worth far more than an overseer or madam ever would guess. Visually epic and never before done, this stunning picture book is unlike anything you’ve seen.
All Different Now by Angela Johnson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
Through the eyes of one little girl, All Different Now tells the story of the first Juneteenth, the day freedom finally came to the last of the slaves in the South. Since then, the observance of June 19 as African American Emancipation Day has spread across the United States and beyond. This stunning picture book includes notes from the author and illustrator, a timeline of important dates, and a glossary of relevant terms.
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