The best books that confront slavery and how it impacts society today

Who am I?

As an archaeologist, anthropologist, and historian who has worked on both the East Coast (Flowerdew Hundred and Jamestown, Virginia) and West Coast (San Diego, California) of the U.S. and dug sites from the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, I am passionate about how archaeology can serve to offer new insights for marginalized peoples in American history. I specialize in exposing how narrow thinking, revisionism, and myth-making warp local histories and turn them into fabrications of the present. 


I wrote...

Born a Slave, Died a Pioneer: Nathan Harrison and the Historical Archaeology of Legend

By Seth Mallios,

Book cover of Born a Slave, Died a Pioneer: Nathan Harrison and the Historical Archaeology of Legend

What is my book about?

Few people in the history of the United States embody the ideals of the American Dream more than Nathan Harrison. His is a story with prominent themes of overcoming staggering obstacles, forging something from nothing, and evincing gritty perseverance. In a lifetime of hard-won progress, Harrison survived the horrors of slavery in the Antebellum South, endured the mania of the California Gold Rush, and prospered in the rugged chaos of the Old West. This book uses spectacular recent archaeological discoveries from the Nathan Harrison cabin site to offer new insights and perspectives into this most American biography.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

By Clint Smith,

Book cover of How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

Why this book?

I believe that this book is one of those special texts that is as much about the present as it is the past. Best of all, Smith interviews and engages with so many different individuals in his research that he rarely needs to speak for others. This book teems with first-hand personal accounts that include everyday people expressing a little bit of everything, be it passing on racist misinformation, correcting current misconceptions with keen historical insights, or philosophically musing about public memory, commemoration, and memorialization.  

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

By Clint Smith,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked How the Word Is Passed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

ONE OF BARACK OBAMA'S FAVOURITE BOOKS OF THE YEAR
A NUMBER ONE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
LONGLISTED FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR NON-FICTION

'A beautifully readable reminder of how much of our urgent, collective history resounds in places all around us that have been hidden in plain sight.' Afua Hirsch, author of Brit(ish)

Beginning in his hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the reader on an unforgettable tour of monuments and landmarks - those that are honest about the past and those that are not - which offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in…


The 1619 Project

By Nikole Hannah-Jones,

Book cover of The 1619 Project

Why this book?

The 1619 Project fundamentally changed the study of American history by explaining and insisting that slavery and its consequences are at the heart of the nation’s origin story. A mix of non-fiction, fiction, and poetry, this volume saturates its reader with a stunningly broad mix of approaches to hammer home the enduring legacies of slavery that go well beyond Emancipation.

The 1619 Project

By Nikole Hannah-Jones,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The 1619 Project as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAACP IMAGE AWARD WINNER • A dramatic expansion of a groundbreaking work of journalism, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story offers a profoundly revealing vision of the American past and present.

FINALIST FOR THE KIRKUS PRIZE • ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The Washington Post, NPR, Esquire, Marie Claire, Electric Lit, Ms. magazine, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist

In late August 1619, a ship arrived in the British colony of Virginia bearing a cargo of twenty to thirty enslaved people from Africa. Their arrival led to the barbaric and unprecedented system of…


Survivors of Slavery: Modern-Day Slave Narratives

By Laura T. Murphy,

Book cover of Survivors of Slavery: Modern-Day Slave Narratives

Why this book?

Laura Murphy uses nearly forty survivor narratives from around the world to demonstrate that slavery is not a heinous phenomenon of the past, but of the present as well. Her work is essential to students of American history; it ensures that slavery is never presented as merely a crime of the past or only as a despicable practice isolated to one geographic region.

Survivors of Slavery: Modern-Day Slave Narratives

By Laura T. Murphy,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Slavery is not a crime confined to the far reaches of history. It is an injustice that continues to entrap twenty-seven million people across the globe. Laura Murphy offers close to forty survivor narratives from Cambodia, Ghana, Lebanon, Macedonia, Mexico, Russia, Thailand, Ukraine, and the United States, detailing the horrors of a system that forces people to work without pay and against their will, under the threat of violence, with little or no means of escape. Representing a variety of circumstances in diverse contexts, these survivors are the Frederick Douglasses, Sojourner Truths, and Olaudah Equianos of our time, testifying to…


Slave Stealers: True Accounts of Slave Rescues: Then and Now

By Timothy Ballard,

Book cover of Slave Stealers: True Accounts of Slave Rescues: Then and Now

Why this book?

This book weaves together two strikingly different stories about slavery that are separated by centuries and hundreds of miles. Ballard's powerful and riveting book not only demonstrates how exploitation in the Americas transcends time and space, it also offers evidence of good deeds by everyday people to combat such lingering evil.

Slave Stealers: True Accounts of Slave Rescues: Then and Now

By Timothy Ballard,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In the 1800s American South, Harriet Jacobs is enslaved and tormented by a cruel master. He relentlessly attempts to force her into a sexual union, and, when rebuffed, he separates her from her children and spends a lifetime trying to coerce her and then recapture her when she escapes to freedom. Jacobs outwits her tormentor and eventually reunites with her children, works in the cause of abolition and reform, and helps newly freed slaves with education and aftercare.

In 2012, Timothy Ballard encounters a grieving father in Haiti whose three-year-old son has been kidnapped and sold into slavery, along with…


Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America

By Wilma King,

Book cover of Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America

Why this book?

As a historical archaeologist, I find this book especially compelling. Stolen Childhood does a fine job of blending insights from a variety of primary-source narratives and recently uncovered archaeological artifacts; but these insights transcend the specific research questions regarding the conditions of daily life for slave youth in nineteenth-century America and indirectly make an intriguing case for why current archaeologists should pay as much attention to issues of childhood, parenting, and aging as they do to ethnicity, class, and gender.

Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America

By Wilma King,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

One of the most important books published on slave society, Stolen Childhood focuses on the millions of children and youth enslaved in 19th-century America. This enlarged and revised edition reflects the abundance of new scholarship on slavery that has emerged in the 15 years since the first edition. While the structure of the book remains the same, Wilma King has expanded its scope to include the international dimension with a new chapter on the transatlantic trade in African children, and the book's geographic boundaries now embrace slave-born children in the North. She includes data about children owned by Native Americans…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in slaves, Slavery, and liberty?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about slaves, Slavery, and liberty.

Slaves Explore 73 books about slaves
Slavery Explore 231 books about Slavery
Liberty Explore 38 books about liberty

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Second Founding, The Upswing, and Race and Reunion if you like this list.