The best biographies of Black women

Who am I?

I am a historian who just spent over a decade writing the biography of the civil rights activist and feminist activist, Mary Church Terrell. I wrote two other history books before I wrote Unceasing Militant, my first biography. I so enjoyed writing it that I plan on writing another, this time on a black woman named Mary Hamilton who was a leader in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the 1960s. The authors I selected approached their biographies of black women with respect and critical compassion.

I wrote...

Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell

By Alison M. Parker,

Book cover of Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell

What is my book about?

My book is a biography of Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954). Born into slavery during the Civil War, she became a prominent civil rights activist and feminist. Terrell was the first president of the National Association of Colored Women and a founding member of the NAACP who collaborated closely with the likes of Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Although she is discussed in many history books, I was amazed to find that Terrell had never been the subject of a full-length biography. Inspired by her life and career, I decided to write her biography. It was an honor to be able to meet Terrell’s family, to read her letters and diaries, and to weave together the joys and struggles of Terrell's personal, private life with the challenges and achievements of her public, political career.

The Books I Picked & Why

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Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry

By Soyica Diggs Colbert,

Book cover of Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry

Why this book?

Lorraine Hansberry’s life and intellectual thought has been distorted, Colbert argues, by being filtered almost entirely through her Broadway hit play, A Raisin in the Sun (1959). The media mischaracterized Hansberry as a liberal, middle-class suburban housewife, ignoring her intersectional radical activism as well as her sexual identity as a lesbian. Providing a new intellectual radical genealogy for Hansberry, Colbert highlights her time in 1950s New York, when she was hired by Paul Robeson to write for Freedom, a monthly journal for Black leftists. Then, in the early 1960s, the last years of her short life, Hansberry collaborated with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to produce a photo essay highlighting the violence and struggle but also of vitality and hope of their collective movement for radical change.

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision

By Barbara Ransby,

Book cover of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision

Why this book?

Barbara Ransby uncovers the life of the civil rights activist, Ella Baker, a supreme grassroots organizer who believed strongly in a more inclusive model of change-making. Although a leading participant in the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), she redefined the meaning of the civil rights movement, focusing on ordinary people as the key agents of social change. Baker hoped to help others lead, as she did when she helped young people create their own organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), but then stepped back to let them lead. Her anti-elitism and radical democratic vision had led to Ella Baker being overlooked by historians who focused on male ministers, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Barbara Ransby’s biography challenges us to rethink what leadership looks like.

Half in Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay

By Shanna Greene Benjamin,

Book cover of Half in Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay

Why this book?

Benjamin’s Half in Shadow is an excellent exploration of the life of Nellie Y. McKay (1930-2006), a pioneering scholar of black women’s literature. Fearing it could damage her career in the academy, McKay declined to be caricatured as an older, divorced, black single mother of two children. So, she hid this from all her academic colleagues and friends, including her closest ones. The driving force of Benjamin’s book is trying to make sense of the private life and professional motivations of McKay’s choice to live her life “half in shadow.” Benjamin suggests that black women in the academy face similar pressures to achieve in and conform to predominantly white spaces in ways that do not easily allow them to bring their entire selves into the light.

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

By Jeanne Theoharis,

Book cover of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

Why this book?

This brilliant biography completely explodes the myth of Rosa Parks as a tired old seamstress who simply chose not to get up in a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. More than a decade earlier, Parks led protests against white men’s gang rape of a black woman, Mrs. Recy Taylor, demanding the prosecution of those responsible for the brutal crime. Parks was an elected officer in the local NAACP and had attended a program at the labor and radical organizing center, the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, to train in nonviolent civil disobedience before she launched her protest on the bus. Finally, Parks was only 42 years old when she was arrested for her defiance of segregation. Theoharis does us a great service by setting the record straight.

Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier

By Lea Vandervelde,

Book cover of Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier

Why this book?

Lea VanderVelde’s biography of Mrs. Dred Scott captures the environments in which Harriet Scott lived her life and filed her suit for freedom in 1846 (it took 11 years before the Scotts’ legal case was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court). Harriet Scott filed separately from her husband because she believed she could establish her freedom, thereby ensuring the freedom of her two daughters, whose condition followed that of the mother. An illiterate enslaved woman, Harriet Scott left virtually no documents. VanderVelde provides rich context in which to situate and explain Scott’s life and freedom struggle, vividly recreating her world. This informative book is well worth reading.

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