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. 

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The books I picked & why

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 did I love 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.

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

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Colored Conventions Movement as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This volume of essays is the first to focus on the Colored Conventions movement, the nineteenth century's longest campaign for Black civil rights. Well before the founding of the NAACP and other twentieth-century pillars of the civil rights movement, tens of thousands of Black leaders organized state and national conventions across North America. Over seven decades, they advocated for social justice and against slavery, protesting state-sanctioned and mob violence while demanding voting, legal, labor, and educational rights. While Black-led activism in this era is often overshadowed by the attention paid to the abolition movement, this collection centers Black activist networks,…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Derrick R. Spires,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Practice of Citizenship as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the years between the American Revolution and the U.S. Civil War, as legal and cultural understandings of citizenship became more racially restrictive, black writers articulated an expansive, practice-based theory of citizenship. Grounded in political participation, mutual aid, critique and revolution, and the myriad daily interactions between people living in the same spaces, citizenship, they argued, is not defined by who one is but, rather, by what one does.
In The Practice of Citizenship, Derrick R. Spires examines the parallel development of early black print culture and legal and cultural understandings of U.S. citizenship, beginning in 1787, with the framing…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Stephen Kantrowitz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked More Than Freedom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A major new account of the Northern movement to establish African Americans as full citizens before, during, and after the Civil War

In More Than Freedom, award-winning historian Stephen Kantrowitz offers a bold rethinking of the Civil War era. Kantrowitz show how the fight to abolish slavery was always part of a much broader campaign by African Americans to claim full citizenship and to remake the white republic into a place where they could belong. More Than Freedom chronicles this epic struggle through the lives of black and white abolitionists in and around Boston, including Frederick Douglass, Senator Charles Sumner,…

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

Why did I love 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.  

By Elizabeth McHenry,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Over the past decade the popularity of black writers including E. Lynn Harris and Terry McMillan has been hailed as an indication that an active African American reading public has come into being. Yet this is not a new trend; there is a vibrant history of African American literacy, literary associations, and book clubs. Forgotten Readers reveals that neglected past, looking at the reading practices of free blacks in the antebellum north and among African Americans following the Civil War. It places the black upper and middle classes within American literary history, illustrating how they used reading and literary conversation…

The Underground Rail Road

By William Still,

Book cover of The Underground Rail Road

Why did I love 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.

By William Still,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Underground Rail Road as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Excerpt from The Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &C., Narrating the Hardships, Hair-Breadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom, as Related by Themselves and Others, or Witnessed by the Author

Resolved, That the Pennsylvania anti-slavery Society request him to compile and publish his personal reminiscences and experiences relating to the Underground Rail Road.

About the Publisher

Forgotten Books publishes hundreds of thousands of rare and classic books. Find more at

This book is a reproduction of an important historical work. Forgotten Books uses state-of-the-art technology to digitally reconstruct…

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