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“Happy Freedom Day”: Reads for Juneteenth 2024

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“Happy Freedom Day”: Reads for Juneteenth 2024

juneteenth 2024

Did you know that there is more than one Independence Day celebrated in the US?

Juneteenth-also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, and Emancipation Day– is a holiday celebrating the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States. 

The day was recognized as a federal holiday on June 17, 2021, when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law.  Juneteenth’s commemoration is on the anniversary date of the June 19, 1865, announcement of General Order No. 3 by Union Army general Gordon Granger, proclaiming freedom for enslaved people in Texas, which was the last state of the Confederacy with institutional slavery.  Juneteenth is recognized as a state holiday or special day of observance in the majority of the 50 U.S. states. It is also often observed for celebrating African-American culture.

In recent times the significance of the holiday has been amplified by the renewed fight against racial injustice in America. Over the course of more than 2 centuries, slavery left a deep legacy of inequality and racism, one that is sadly visible even today 159 years after emancipation.

To commemorate Juneteenth, here are some books and ebooks on the history of slavery and emancipation,  slave rebellion, the Reconstruction era, and black freedom movements,  that will allow us to reflect on these shameful chapters in American history and acknowledge that much more needs to be done to achieve racial justice and equality in American society even today.

african founders

African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals by David Hackett Fischer

A brilliant synthesis of African and African-American history that shows how slavery differed in different regions of the country, and how the Africans and their descendants influenced the culture, commerce, and laws of the early United States.

Africatown: America’s Last Slave Ship and the Community It Created by Nick Tabor

An epic story, Africatown charts the fraught history of America from those who were brought here as slaves but nevertheless established a home for themselves and their descendants, a community which often thrived despite persistent racism and environmental pollution. In 1860, a ship called the Clotilda was smuggled through the Alabama Gulf Coast, carrying the last group of enslaved people ever brought to the US from West Africa. Five years later, the shipmates were emancipated, but they had no way of getting back home. Instead they created their own community outside the city of Mobile, where they spoke Yoruba and appointed their own leaders, a story chronicled in Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon. That community, Africatown, has endured to the present day, and many of the community residents are the shipmates’ direct descendants. After many decades of neglect and a Jim Crow legal system that targeted the area for industrialization, the community is struggling to survive.

American Inheritance : Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation, 1765-1795 by Edward J. Larson

Larson recasts the narrative of the nation’s founding by focusing on vociferous debates about liberty that erupted during three crucial decades of revolutionary fervor. By 1700, more than 2 million enslaved Africans had been shipped to America. At a time when rebellious colonists proclaimed their refusal to be enslaved by the British, most saw no contradiction in buying and selling men, women, and children. Many, especially in the South, agreed with Thomas Jefferson that Blacks were inferior, “incapable of liberty on a par with whites.” Larson’s stirring narrative includes the perspectives of free and escaped slaves, such as James Somerset, who was brought to England by his owner, where he successfully sued for his freedom; poet Phillis Wheatley; and Ona Judge, dower property of Martha Washington, whose escape incited George Washington’s desperate, enraged search for her return.

Black Ghost of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation by Kris Manjapra

The 1619 Project illuminated the ways in which every aspect of life in the United States was and is shaped by the existence of slavery.  This book focuses on emancipation and how this opportunity to make right further codified the racial caste system–instead of obliterating it. Manjapra identifies five types of emancipation–explaining them in chronological order–along with the lasting impact these transitions had on formerly enslaved groups around the Atlantic.

The Creole Rebellion : The Most Successful Slave Revolt in American History by Bruce Chadwick

The Creole Rebellion tells the suspenseful story of a successful mutiny on board the slave ship Creole. En route for a New Orleans slave-auction block in November 1841, nineteen captives mutinied, killing one man and injuring several others. After taking control of the vessel, mutineer Madison Washington forced the crewmen to sail to the Bahamas. Despite much local hysteria upon their arrival, all of the 135 slaves aboard the ship won their freedom there.The revolt significantly fueled and amplified the slave debate within a divided nation that was already hurtling toward a Civil War.

devils half acre

The Devil’s Half Acre : the Untold Story of How One Woman Liberated the South’s Most Notorious Slave Jail by Kristen Green

Green draws on years of deep research to tell the extraordinary hidden story of young Mary Lumpkin, an enslaved woman who sought freedom and lit a path for liberation for thousands more.  She was forced to have the children of a brutal slave trader and live on the premises of his slave jail, known as the “Devil’s Half Acre.” When she inherited the jail after the death of her slaveholder, she transformed it into “God’s Half Acre,” a school where Black men could fulfill their dreams. It still exists today as Virginia Union University, one of America’s first Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  

The Emancipation Proclamation and Other Documents of Freedom by Abraham Lincoln

This distinguished edition captures a pivotal moment of justice in the United States with a document that paved the way for the abolition of slavery.

General Gordon Granger: The Savior of Chickamauga and the Man Behind “Juneteenth” by Robert C. Conner

The first full-length biography of the Union general who performed heroically at the Civil War battles of Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Mobile.  By coming to the aid of Maj. Gen. Thomas—against orders—at the Battle of Chickamauga, Union Gen. Gordon Granger saved the Federal army from catastrophic defeat. Later, he played major roles in the Chattanooga and Mobile campaigns. Immediately after the war, as commander of US troops in Texas, his actions sparked the “Juneteenth” celebrations of slavery’s end, which continue to this day.

A Madman’s Will : John Randolph, 400 Slaves, and the Mirage of Freedom by Gregory May

Few legal cases in American history are as riveting as the controversy surrounding the will of Virginia Senator John Randolph (1773-1833), which–almost inexplicably–freed all 383 of his slaves in one of the largest and most publicized manumissions in American history. With this groundbreaking investigation, historian May now reveals a more surprising story, showing how madness and scandal shaped John Randolph’s wildly shifting attitudes toward his slaves–and how endemic prejudice in the North ultimately deprived the freedmen of the land Randolph had promised them.

Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom by Ilyon Woo

The remarkable true story of Ellen and William Craft, who escaped slavery through daring, determination, and disguise, with Ellen passing as a wealthy, disabled White man and William posing as “his” slave.

on freedom road

On Freedom Road : Bicycle Explorations and Reckonings on the Underground Railroad by David M. Goodrich

Over the course of four years, Goodrich rode his bicycle 3,000 miles east of the Mississippi to travel the routes of the Underground Railroad and delve into the history and stories in the places where they happened. This book enables us to see familiar places–New York and Philadelphia, New Orleans and Buffalo–in a very different light: from the vantage point of desperate people seeking to outrun the reach of slavery.

Hell Put to Shame : The 1921 Murder Farm Massacre and the Horror of America’s Second Slavery by Earl Swift

On a Sunday morning in the spring of 1921, a small boy made a grim discovery as he played on a riverbank in the cotton country of rural Georgia: the bodies of two drowned men, bound together with wire and chain and weighted with a hundred-pound sack of rocks. Within days a third body turned up in another nearby river, and in the weeks that followed, eight others. And with them a deeper horror: all eleven had been kept in virtual slavery before their deaths. In fact, as America was shocked to learn, the dead were among thousands of Black men enslaved throughout the South in conditions nearly as dire as those before the Civil War. Hell Put to Shame tells the forgotten story of that mass killing and of the revelations about peonage, or debt slavery, that it placed before a public self-satisfied that involuntary servitude had ended at Appomattox more than fifty years before. 

On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed

Weaving together American history, dramatic family chronicle, and searing episodes of memoir, this book 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.

A Question of Freedom : The Families Who Challenged Slavery From the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War by William G. Thomas

The story of the longest and most complex legal challenge to slavery in American history, in which a number of enslaved families challenged their bondage in court.

The Stolen Wealth of Slavery : A Case for Reparations by David Montero

 It has long been maintained by many that the North wasn’t complicit in the horrors of slavery, that the forced bondage and exploitation of Black people was primarily a Southern phenomenon. Yet this isn’t true: In fact, popular Northern banks–including well-known institutions like Citibank, Bank of New York, and Bank of America–saw their fortunes rise dramatically from their involvement in the slave trade. White business leaders and their surrounding communities created humongous wealth from the abject misery of others. And some of the very Northerners who would be considered pro-Union during the Civil War were in fact anti-abolition, seeing the institution of slavery as being in their best financial interests and only supporting the Union once they realized doing so would be good for business. Over time, the wealth generated from slavery didn’t vanish but became part of the bedrock of the growth of modern corporations, helping to transform America into a global economic behemoth.

survivors of the clotilda

The Survivors of the Clotilda: The Lost Stories of the Last Captives of the American Slave Trade by Hannah Durkin

In this epic work, Dr. Durkin tells the stories of the Clotilda’s 110 captives, drawing on her intensive archival, historical, and sociological research. The book follows their lives from their kidnappings in what is modern-day Nigeria through a terrifying 45-day journey across the Middle Passage; from the subsequent sale of the ship’s 103 surviving children and young people into slavery across Alabama to the dawn of the Civil Rights movement in Selma; from the foundation of an all-Black African Town (later Africatown) in Northern Mobile—an inspiration for writers of the Harlem Renaissance, including Zora Neale Hurston—to the foundation of the quilting community of Gee’s Bend—a Black artistic circle whose cultural influence remains enormous.

The 272 : The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church by Rachel L. Swarns

Swarns outlines a methodical timeline for the events leading up to the unconscionable sale of 272 innocent men, women, and children. In Maryland, 1838, the first Jesuit province in the U.S. was charged with securing much-needed funding for its most prestigious school, Georgetown University. At the time, Jesuit priests reportedly owned various tobacco, corn, or wheat plantations across the state of Maryland, encompassing thousands of acres and hundreds of enslaved people. Under orders from Rome, it was decided that the best option for saving the university from bankruptcy was to sell 272 enslaved laborers literally down the river to “good plantations” in Louisiana. There, they were subjected to the bullwhip and one of the cruelest forced-labor systems in human history—all to fund Georgetown University. 

To Walk About in Freedom : The Long Emancipation of Priscilla Joyner by Carole Emberton

Priscilla Joyner was born into the world of slavery in 1858. Her life story, which she recounted in an oral history decades later, captures the complexity of emancipation. Based on interviews that Joyner and formerly enslaved people had with the Depression-era Federal Writers Project, historian Emberton draws a portrait of the steps they took in order to feel free, something no legal mandate could instill. Joyner’s life exemplifies the deeply personal, highly emotional nature of freedom and the decisions people made, from the seemingly mundane.

Washington at the Plow : The Founding Farmer and the Question of Slavery by Bruce Ragsdale

George Washington spent most of his time farming, often employing experimental methods. Washington saw slave-powered scientific agriculture as the key to the nation’s prosperity. Ragsdale argues that it was slave labor’s inefficiency as much as its inhumanity that finally convinced Washington to emancipate the men and women bonded to him.

Kanopy carries several films on slavery, emancipation and the civil rights movement.

Archana Chiplunkar, Adult Services & Acquisitions Librarian

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