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...

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.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry

Why did I love 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.

By Soyica Diggs Colbert,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Radical Vision as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A "loving, lavishly detailed" (New York Times) and captivating portrait of Lorraine Hansberry's life, art, and political activism-one of O Magazine's best books of April 2021

"A devoted and deeply felt account of the development of an artist's mind."-Dave Itzkoff, New York Times Book Review (2021 Summer Reading issue)

In this acclaimed biography of Lorraine Hansberry, Soyica Diggs Colbert narrates a life at the intersection of art and politics, arguing that for Hansberry the theater operated as a rehearsal room for her political and intellectual work. Celebrated for her play A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry was also the author…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Barbara Ransby,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement, Ella Baker (1903-1986) was an activist whose remarkable career spanned fifty years and touched thousands of lives. In this deeply researched biography, Barbara Ransby chronicles Baker's long and rich political career as an organizer, an intellectual, and a teacher, from her early experiences in depression-era Harlem to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Ransby paints a vivid picture of the African American fight for justice and its intersections with other progressive struggles worldwide across…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Shanna Greene Benjamin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Half in Shadow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Nellie Y. McKay (1930-2006) was a pivotal figure in contemporary American letters. The author of several books, McKay is best known for coediting the canon-making Norton Anthology of African American Literature with Henry Louis Gates Jr., which helped secure a place for the scholarly study of Black writing that had been ignored by white academia. However, there is more to McKay's life and legacy than her literary scholarship. After her passing, new details about McKay's life emerged, surprising everyone who knew her. Why did McKay choose to hide so many details of her past? Shanna Greene Benjamin examines McKay's path…

Book cover of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

Why did I love 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.

By Jeanne Theoharis,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The basis for the documentary of the same name executive produced by award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks premieres on Peacock on October 19.

2014 NAACP Image Award Winner: Outstanding Literary Work–Biography/Autobiography
2013 Letitia Woods Brown Award from the Association of Black Women Historians

Choice Top 25 Academic Titles for 2013

The definitive political biography of Rosa Parks examines her six decades of activism, challenging perceptions of her as an accidental actor in the civil rights movement.

This revised edition includes a new introduction by the author, who reflects on materials in the Rosa Parks…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Lea Vandervelde,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mrs. Dred Scott as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Among the most infamous U.S. Supreme Court decisions is Dred Scott v. Sandford . Despite the case's signal importance as a turning point in America's history, the lives of the slave litigants have receded to the margins of the record, as conventional accounts have focused on the case's judges and lawyers. In telling the life of Harriet, Dred's wife and co-litigant in the case, this book provides a compensatory history to the generations of work that missed key
sources only recently brought to light. Moreover, it gives insight into the reasons and ways that slaves used the courts to establish…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Civil Rights Movement, SNCC, and slaves?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Civil Rights Movement, SNCC, and slaves.

The Civil Rights Movement Explore 83 books about the Civil Rights Movement
SNCC Explore 4 books about SNCC
Slaves Explore 81 books about slaves

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Last Great Strike, Empire of Cotton, and Harriet Jacobs if you like this list.