African American History: Nonfiction & Biographies

Terri Leslie Adults

As a part of Black History Month, we have listed below, nonfiction and biography books about African American civil rights leaders, politicians, inventors, mathematicians, and just over all incredible people. Take a moment to digest the extraordinary impact made by African Americans in this country and all around the world.

 

The Bridge : the life and rise of Barack Obama
David Remnick
No story has been more central to America’s history this century than the rise of Barack Obama, and until now, no journalist or historian has written a book that fully investigates the circumstances and experiences of Obama’s life or explores the ambition behind his rise. Those familiar with Obama’s own best-selling memoir or his campaign speeches know the touchstones and details that he chooses to emphasize, but now—from a writer whose gift for illuminating the historical significance of unfolding events is without peer—we have a portrait, at once masterly and fresh, nuanced and unexpected, of a young man in search of himself, and of a rising politician determined to become the first African-American president.
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Hidden figures : the American dream and the untold story of the Black women mathematicians who helped win the space race
Margot Lee Shetterly

Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space. Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.
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Nelson Mandela : the man and the movement
Mary Benson
The son of a chief, he qualified as a lawyer, then was one of the leaders of the African National Congress whose long, heroic struggle against the infamous system of Apartheid is vividly described in this biography. Accused of treason, Mandela was incarcerated for twenty-seven years, years in which he was honored as the world’s most famous political prisoner.  The fascinating story of Mandela’s delicate negotiations with the government, leading to the release of fellow prisoners and to his own dramatic emergence from prison in 1990, is captured along with South Africa’s progress towards democratic elections. In that election Mandela and millions of his black fellow citizens voted for the first time in their lives. The final chapter, which concludes with Mandela’s inauguration as president, conveys the significance and profound joy of this historic event.
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Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass  
Former slave, impassioned abolitionist, brilliant writer, newspaper editor and eloquent orator whose speeches fired the abolitionist cause, Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) led an astounding life. Physical abuse, deprivation and tragedy plagued his early years, yet through sheer force of character he was able to overcome these obstacles to become a leading spokesman for his people.
In this, the first and most frequently read of his three autobiographies, Douglass provides graphic descriptions of his childhood and horrifying experiences as a slave as well as a harrowing record of his dramatic escape to the North and eventual freedom.
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Martin Luther King, Jr. : a life
Marshall Frady

Marshall Frady, the reporter who became the unofficial chronicler of the civil rights movement, here re-creates the life and turbulent times of its inspirational leader. Deftly interweaving the story of King’s quest with a history of the African American struggle for equality, Frady offers fascinating insights into his subject’s magnetic character, with its mixture of piety and ambition. He explores the complexities of King’s relationships with other civil rights leaders, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, who conducted a relentless vendetta against him. The result is a biography that conveys not just the facts of King’s life but the power of his legacy.
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Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., American : an autobiography
Benjamin O. Davis

Set against the backdrop of twentieth-century America, against the social fabric of segregation and the broad canvas of foreign war, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.: American tells a compelling story of personal achievement against formidable odds. Born into an era when potential was measured according to race, Davis was determined to be judged by his character and deeds—to succeed as an American, and not to fail because of color. With twelve million citizens —the black population of the United States—pulling for him, Davis entered West Point in 1932, resolved to become an officer even though official military directives stated that blacks were decidedly inferior, lacking in courage, superstitious, and dominated by moral and character weaknesses. “Silenced” by his peers, for four years spoken to only in the line of duty, David did not falter. He graduated 35th in a class of 276 and requested assignment to the Army Air Corps, then closed to blacks.
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The Autobiography of Malcolm X : as told by Alex Haley

Malcolm X, Alex Haley, Attallah Shabazz
With its first great victory in the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the civil rights movement gained the powerful momentum it needed to sweep forward into its crucial decade, the 1960s. As voices of protest and change rose above the din of history and false promises, one voice sounded more urgently, more passionately, than the rest. Malcolm X—once called the most dangerous man in America—challenged the world to listen and learn the truth as he experienced it. And his enduring message is as relevant today as when he first delivered it.
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Medical apartheid : the dark history of medical experimentation on Black Americans from colonial times to the present
by Harriet A. Washington

Medical Apartheid is the first and only comprehensive history of medical experimentation on African Americans. Starting with the earliest encounters between black Americans and Western medical researchers and the racist pseudoscience that resulted, it details the ways both slaves and freedmen were used in hospitals for experiments conducted without their knowledge—a tradition that continues today within some black populations. Moving into the twentieth century, it shows how the pseudoscience of eugenics and social Darwinism was used to justify experimental exploitation and shoddy medical treatment of blacks, and the view that they were biologically inferior, oversexed, and unfit for adult responsibilities. Shocking new details about the government’s notorious Tuskegee experiment are revealed, as are similar, less-well-known medical atrocities conducted by the government, the armed forces, prisons, and private institutions.
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George Washington Carver : a life
Christina Vella

Nearly every American can cite at least one of the accomplishments of George Washington Carver. The many tributes honoring his contributions to scientific advancement and black history include a national monument bearing his name, a U.S.-minted coin featuring his likeness, and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Born into slavery, Carver earned a master’s degree at Iowa State Agricultural College and went on to become that university’s first black faculty member. A keen painter who chose agricultural studies over art, he focused the majority of his research on peanuts and sweet potatoes. Despite Carver’s lifelong difficulties with systemic racial prejudice, when he died in 1943, millions of Americans mourned the passing of one of the nation’s most honored and well-known scientists. Scores of children’s books celebrate the contributions of this prolific botanist, but no biographer has fully examined both his personal life and career until now.
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The warmth of other suns : the epic story of America’s great migration
Isabel Wilkerson

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 journeys 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, sharp and quick-tempered George Starling, who in 1945 fled Florida for Harlem, and Robert Foster, who left Louisiana in 1953 to pursue a medical career, which allowed him to purchase a grand home where he often threw exuberant parties.
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Triumph : the untold story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics
Jeremy Schaap

At the 1936 Olympics, against a backdrop of swastikas and goose-stepping storm troopers, an African-American son of sharecroppers won a staggering four gold medals and single-handedly demonstrated that Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy was a lie. The story of Jesse Owens at the Berlin games is that of an athletic performance that transcends sports. It is also the intimate and complex tale of one remarkable man’s courage. Drawing on unprecedented access to the Owens family, previously unpublished interviews, and exhaustive archival research, Jeremy Schaap transports us to Germany and tells the dramatic tale of Owens and his fellow athletes at the contest dubbed the Nazi Olympics.
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Great discoveries and inventions by African-Americans
by David M. Foy

Rev. Foy has put to together a extremely overdue and enlightening book, that in the publishers humble opinion, should be in every home, library, and school in this country! The material in this book is simply astounding and many of these discoveries have not been attributable to Blacks. In fact, during these times, Blacks could not have their names listed on the patents for their own inventions. But other records were kept nevertheless. Now, Mr. Foy has extensively documented historical findings factually showing patented inventions created by people of African heritage that today, we take as modern conveniences.
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Thurgood Marshall : American revolutionary
Juan Williams

This New York Times Notable Book of the Year, 1998, is now in trade paper. From the bestselling author of Eyes on the Prize, here is the definitive biography of the great lawyer and Supreme Court justice.
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The rebellious life of Mrs. Rosa Parks
Jeanne Theoharis

Presenting a corrective to the popular notion of Rosa Parks as the quiet seamstress who, with a single act, birthed the modern civil rights movement, Theoharis provides a revealing window into Parks’s politics and years of activism. She shows readers how this civil rights movement radical sought—for more than a half a century—to expose and eradicate the American racial-caste system in jobs, schools, public services, and criminal justice.
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