The best books about 19th-century Black New Yorkers you wish you had learned about in history class

The Books I Picked & Why

The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict

By Austin Reed, Caleb Smith

The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict

Why this book?

This book surprised the scholarly community when the manuscript was first obtained at an estate sale.  A handwritten memoir that had lain largely unread for over a hundred and fifty years, this narrative depicts the sort of child we rarely see in the history books. A defiant apprentice, a runaway truant, a bartender, a prisoner, and author, Austin Reed offers us one plot twist after another. As a free person of color in the nineteenth century, Reed offers a compelling view into the life of one man who was determined to maintain his own sense of self, even in the face of a quickly growing carceral state that imprisoned him both as a child and as a man.


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In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863

By Leslie M. Harris

In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863

Why this book?

The history of colonial and antebellum New York, in Harris’s hands, becomes a map of Black activism. This book moves beyond a history of slavery and abolition to offer a sweeping historical narrative of Black life in New York City, starting with the arrival of the first enslaved people in 1626 and culminating in the brutally violent draft riots of 1863. Harris works creatively with little-studied sources to chronicle how, even in the direst of circumstances, Black New Yorkers created vibrant communities. While Harris certainly depicts the obstacles that Black New Yorkers faced in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, she also showcases individual lives, marked by sharp ambition and myriad achievements. In this narrative, talented political operatives create national movements, argue with white abolitionists, and create institutions and traditions that influence racial politics to the present day. 


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Freedom Fire

By Daniel José Older

Freedom Fire

Why this book?

This middle-grade novel introduces us to a real place—the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York City—and invites us to imagine the historical children who lived there as freedom fighters. Those fights for freedom, it turns out, take place on the back of dinosaurs! While the surprising addition of dinosaur battles might seem like a diversion from the hard work of learning about slavery’s painful history, in Older’s hands, the dinos offer young readers a way to meditate on power and its abuses. Viewed in the context of a Black radical tradition that insists on alternate timescapes, Freedom Fire’s dinosaurs do not function as a bit of whimsical unreality that overwrites difficult historical truths. Instead, their discordant presence actually offers a space for readers—children and educators both—to better inhabit the surreal, disorienting history of enslavement and freedom in the United States.


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Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City

By Carla L. Peterson

Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City

Why this book?

Part history, part memoir, part detective story, the capacious, impeccably researched Black Gotham depicts an author’s engagement with her own ancestry, as she traces her family’s achievements in nineteenth-century New York City. Starting with the name and a family story about one great-grandfather, Peterson weaves a vibrant tapestry that details the lives of a community of elite Black New Yorkers who attended schools, started businesses, generated national conventions, and lived cosmopolitan lives. In addition to chronicling the lives of these accomplished ancestors, Peterson offers a compelling meditation on the determination and creativity required to excavate the lives of Black Americans whom traditional historians had long neglected.


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Stories of Freedom in Black New York

By Shane White

Stories of Freedom in Black New York

Why this book?

This beautifully written history focuses on another nineteenth-century Black New Yorker who defies expectations and deserves our attention. Like Educated for Freedom and Black Gotham, White’s story places us in historical moments surrounding the 1827 law ending slavery in New York State. White puts us on the vibrant, noisy, streets of the city, inviting us to see both hope and defiance in how Black people dressed, how they walked down the street, and what they did at the theater. At the center of this history emerges James Hewlett, a man whose life is worthy of at least one feature film, but has remained largely unknown outside of specialists in the field. Hewlett was a Black Shakespearean actor who insisted on his right to interpret Shakespeare for himself and for the community, even as white tastemakers sought to keep the bard’s words to themselves.


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