The best books about Black women disruptors

Katie McCabe Author Of Mighty Justice: My Life in Civil Rights
By Katie McCabe

Who am I?

Improbable trailblazers have fascinated me ever since I told the story of Black cardiac surgery pioneer Vivien Thomas in a 1989 Washingtonian Magazine article that won the National Magazine Award and inspired the Emmy-winning HBO film Something the Lord Made. My passion for chronicling unheralded genius has led me from one of the most remote corners of the American west to Baltimore operating rooms to the classrooms and courtrooms of Washington, DC. My decade-long collaboration with civil rights pioneer Dovey Johnson Roundtree in co-writing her autobiography Mighty Justice whetted my interest in a host of fierce African American women pathbreakers.


I wrote...

Mighty Justice: My Life in Civil Rights

By Dovey Johnson Roundtree, Katie McCabe,

Book cover of Mighty Justice: My Life in Civil Rights

What is my book about?

Lawyer. Veteran. Minister. Black woman. Decades before America had a way to talk about its female trailblazers, Dovey Johnson Roundtree was the ultimate disruptor. Alone, she defied World War II military segregation in a high-risk showdown with her Army superiors, and as a new attorney, she wrested a 1955 Jim Crow bus travel ban from the staunchly segregationist Interstate Commerce Commission. The summer Watts burned, she took on the federal government in her successful defense of the Black man accused of murdering an outspoken JFK mistress with CIA ties. Dovey’s vision of justice was so vital and transformative that it drew me to her in 1995 when I discovered her in a Washington Post article, and for more than a decade we worked together to bring that vision to life in Mighty Justice

The book, a January 2020 Oprah Pick, won the Association of Black Women Historians’ Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Prize and inspired two children’s books and a feature film, currently in development by the producers of Hidden Figures.

The books I picked & why

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The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice

By Patricia Bell-Scott,

Book cover of The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice

Why this book?

Patricia Bell-Scott’s study of Eleanor Roosevelt and the fiercely driven civil rights activist Pauli Murray is a captivating portrait of two social justice warriors who by all the logic of time and place should never have met, much less produced changes neither one could have accomplished alone. Roosevelt is rendered with deftness and fresh insight, but it’s Bell-Scott’s unforgettable depiction of the lesser-known figure of Constitutional lawyer, NOW founder, and groundbreaking Episcopal minister Pauli Murray which, for me, sets this book apart. Having first learned of Murray in my interviews with her legal protégé, Dovey Johnson Roundtree, I was hungry for a deeper understanding of the complex, enigmatic woman Eleanor Roosevelt called a “firebrand,” and I found that understanding in the pages of this extraordinary book. 

The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice

By Patricia Bell-Scott,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Firebrand and the First Lady as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD NOMINEE • The riveting history of how Pauli Murray—a brilliant writer-turned-activist—and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt forged an enduring friendship that helped to alter the course of race and racism in America.

“A definitive biography of Murray, a trailblazing legal scholar and a tremendous influence on Mrs. Roosevelt.” —Essence

In 1938, the twenty-eight-year-old Pauli Murray wrote a letter to the President and First Lady, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, protesting racial segregation in the South. Eleanor wrote back. So began a friendship that would last for a quarter of a century, as Pauli became a lawyer, principal strategist in…


Harriet Jacobs: The Remarkable Adventures of the Woman Who Wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

By Jean Fagan Yellin,

Book cover of Harriet Jacobs: The Remarkable Adventures of the Woman Who Wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Why this book?

Like the thousands of other readers who’d been haunted by Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl when it resurfaced during the civil rights era, I had questions.  Were the horrific events of her enslavement and escape really true?  Did Jacobs herself write the book, or was it the work of the white abolitionist she identified as her “editor”? In this biography, we’re given answers based on the documentary evidence Jean Yellin unearthed over 30 years of research. We learn that Jacobs’ stranger-than-fiction slavery narrative is factually accurate and that it was the work of Jacobs herself. In our present age of exploded myths, there’s something breathtaking about that discovery, and about Yellin’s masterful rendition of the life of an icon of Black female resistance.

Harriet Jacobs: The Remarkable Adventures of the Woman Who Wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

By Jean Fagan Yellin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Harriet Jacobs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl remains the most-read woman's slave narrative of all time. Jean Fagan Yellin recounts the experiences that shaped Incidents-the years Jacobs spent hiding in her grandmother's attic from her sexually abusive master-as well as illuminating the wider world into which Jacobs escaped. Yellin's ground-breaking scholarship restores a life whose sorrows and triumphs reflect the history of the nineteenth century, from slavery to the Civil War, to Reconstruction and beyond. Winner of the 2004 Frederick Douglass Prize, presented by Yale University's Gilder-Lehrman centre for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, awarded…


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?

For me, this book is more a mystery story with a carefully calibrated punchline than a standard biography. Barbara Ransby goes to the heart of the question of how any woman could wield as much influence as did NAACP branch organizer and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) “godmother” Ella Baker in the notoriously sexist civil rights movement.  The “outsider within,” Ransby calls her subject, revealing the way Baker managed to introduce alongside the all-male, church-based stream of the movement a tidal wave of grassroots activism powered by legions of ordinary folk, including the young activists she mentored as SNCC’s leading strategist.  In prose that’s academic but never inaccessible, Ransby mines the rich ore of Baker’s multi-faceted career to bring to life a searing example of Black female power. 

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

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…


Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All

By Martha S. Jones,

Book cover of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All

Why this book?

What a punch this quiet book packs, in its sweep of Black female freedom fighters over two centuries. Expecting a focus on the civil rights era, I was astonished to encounter such early political disruptors as Mary Ellen Watkins Harper, the only Black woman to speak at the 1866 convention of the American Equal Rights Association; and Maria Stewart, who dared in the early 19th century to call out to formerly enslaved women. Vanguard, inspired by the author’s female ancestors’ brave and lonely fight for civil rights, pulses with deep feeling for unheralded greatness. On the Nineteenth Amendment’s centennial, this book shines a long-overdue light on the ability of doubly marginalized Black women to lend their voices to the battle for universal suffrage.

Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All

By Martha S. Jones,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Vanguard as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“An elegant and expansive history” (New YorkTimes)of African American women’s pursuit of political power—and how it transformed America  
 
InVanguard, acclaimed historian Martha S. Jones offers a new history of African American women’s political lives in America. She recounts how they defied both racism and sexism to fight for the ballot, and how they wielded political power to secure the equality and dignity of all persons. From the earliest days of the republic to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and beyond, Jones excavates the lives and work ofBlackwomen—Maria Stewart, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Fannie Lou Hamer, and more—who…


On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker

By A’Lelia Bundles,

Book cover of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker

Why this book?

Cemented in popular consciousness by the 2020 Netflix series starring Octavia Spencer, African American millionaire and philanthropist Madam C.J. Walker stands as one of the foremost emblems of Black economic achievement. The woman born Sarah Breedlove to former slaves in 1867 transformed herself from cotton picker to washerwoman to direct sales pioneer to iconic beauty empire head and social activist at a time when even educated Black women of privilege were constrained by the white male hierarchy. The bare bones of this narrative would be sufficient for a book. But in the hands of Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, journalist A’Lelia Bundles, the rags-to-riches story becomes a window into the social, economic, and racial realities of the times and a riveting portrait of the shrewd, unflinching and ambitious woman who triumphed despite them.

On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker

By A’Lelia Bundles,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked On Her Own Ground as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The book behind the Netflix series, starring Octavia Spencer

'One of the most fabulous African-American figures of the twentieth century' Ishmael Reed

Madam Walker was the first free-born child in her family, growing up in abject poverty in post-Civil War America. From humble beginnings, she overcame societal prejudice, family betrayals and epic business rivalries to pioneer cosmetics that revolutionised black hair care, build a beauty empire, and become one of the wealthiest self-made women in America.

Not only an astute businesswoman, but a passionate activist and philanthropist, Madam Walker provided jobs and training for thousands of African American women across…


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