The best books about early African American community activism

John Ernest Author Of A Nation Within a Nation: Organizing African American Communities before the Civil War
By John Ernest

Who am I?

Good question. Why would a white guy be passionate about nineteenth-century African American community building and activism? It’s a long story, but the short version is that by the time I reached graduate school, I could no longer avoid the realization that I had been dramatically miseducated about American history, and that the key to American history—one important key, anyway—is African American history. You can’t understand what it means to be an American if you don’t know this history, and you can’t understand our own very troubled times, or how to respond to these times, how to turn frustration into action, unless you know this history. So I developed my expertise over the years. 


I wrote...

A Nation Within a Nation: Organizing African American Communities before the Civil War

By John Ernest,

Book cover of A Nation Within a Nation: Organizing African American Communities before the Civil War

What is my book about?

This is the activism you might not have been taught or looked for. When nineteenth-century African Americans are not remembered as victims of the system of slavery, they are remembered mainly for their antislavery efforts—and we usually recall and celebrate just a few individuals. Frederick Douglass giving a speech. Harriet Tubman blazing a trail to freedom. Sojourner Truth asking firmly, “Ain’t I a Woman?” We rarely look beyond such individuals to the thriving African American communities in the North. 

A Nation Within a Nation tells the story of how those communities were created and sustained. Excluded from schools, churches, libraries, fraternal organizations, and even graveyards, African Americans established their own, making of themselves a self-sustaining community in the midst of oppression. 

The books I picked & why

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The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century

By P. Gabrielle Foreman (editor), Jim Casey (editor), Sarah Lynn Patterson (editor)

Book cover of The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century

Why this book?

The story of how this book came to be is almost as interesting as the story it tells. Emerging from a class discussion at the University of Delaware, the Colored Conventions Project developed into an award-winning international digital initiative involving community partners representing a broad range of churches, schools, and other organizations. These collaborative efforts led to an historic conference that led, in turn, to this book, in which various contributors address different aspects of the Colored Conventions Movement, a series of state and national gatherings that took place throughout the nineteenth century to work towards strengthened communities and social reform. These conventions both represented and encouraged the larger community-development project that took place nationally, and it’s a revelation to discover this great foundation of African American activism, a collaborative effort being continued today by the ambitious project this book represents.


The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States

By Derrick R. Spires,

Book cover of The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States

Why this book?

This is a fascinating book that deals with one of the central dilemmas in American history—that a nation committed to high ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in a republic made up of people from several lands could also be a nation committed to racial oppression and the denial of fundamental rights. It considers citizenship not as noun but as verb—a dynamic process, not just a legal affiliation. Spires gets at the complexity of American life, explaining approaches to citizenship that required savvy improvisation, community formation, and determined commitment to ideals that were violated by the dominant culture at every turn. Spires explores the tensions, the disagreements over directions and methods, that were part of this collective effort, and the concepts of citizenship that emerged from those productive debates. Among a great many other things, readers will learn a lot about African American intellectual life, writing, and community activism in the nineteenth century. 


More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889

By Stephen Kantrowitz,

Book cover of More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889

Why this book?

Like Spires, Kantrowitz is interested in the ways in which nineteenth-century African Americans made the case for being recognized as citizens. We tend to focus on stories of freedom, as if that’s what those who escaped from slavery encountered when they reached the North—but in fact they arrived to only relative freedom, and they faced an ongoing struggle for something “more than freedom.” This is the story Kantrowitz tells, focusing mainly on Black activists in Boston. The story begins with community-building efforts—establishing churches, literary societies, newspapers, and the other organizations needed to sustain a flourishing, educated, and economically-secure society. Kantrowitz introduces readers to a number of African American leaders who deserve to be much better known, heroes of American history. His core argument, though, like that of Spires, has to do with defining what the word citizenship actually means, extending it beyond basic inclusion to a determined and deeply ethical approach to community. 


Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies

By Elizabeth McHenry,

Book cover of Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies

Why this book?

If you think that literary societies have nothing to do with African American community activism, then this book will make you think again. African Americans were excluded from schools, libraries, and most of the usual publishing outlets—but they still developed a vibrant culture that produced newspapers, pamphlets, and books, and they developed libraries and literary societies committed to reading these and other productions. McHenry expertly guides us through this relatively unknown but central culture of reading, tracing the rise of African American literary societies, the work of the Black Press, and the vital connection between reading, writing, and social reform efforts. These efforts were supported by broader African American organizational efforts, the creation of churches and mutual aid societies that provided refuge for readers and forums for writers, and McHenry explores the social and intellectual networks that developed from these efforts, as African Americans read their way to new visions of community and renewed commitments to ongoing activism.  


The Underground Rail Road

By William Still,

Book cover of The Underground Rail Road

Why this book?

If you’re interested in nineteenth-century African American activism, then you should read something by someone directly involved in that work. William Still, based in Philadelphia, was involved in a great many social-reform efforts, but he is known today primarily for his work with the Underground Railroad—an institution that was itself a blend of fact and fiction, history and legend. In this book, Still tells the story of a number of individuals who successfully escaped from enslavement, some of them with organized assistance, and others who managed on their own before reaching the networks available to them once they reached Philadelphia and Still’s network of committed antislavery workers.

Since the book is comprised primarily of these many individual stories, and with no discernible organizing principle, this can be a challenging book to read from the first page to the last. But that won’t stop you, and you might find yourself replicating nineteenth-century reading habits as you read different stories at different times, sometimes looking specifically for certain stories, as many African Americans themselves did after the Civil War, hoping to find some trace of family members from whom they had been separated by slavery. This is a book you don’t just read; it’s a book you live with.


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