The best books for first-person accounts of life in the twentieth century South

The Books I Picked & Why

You May Plow Here: The Narrative of Sara Brooks

By Sara Brooks

You May Plow Here: The Narrative of Sara Brooks

Why this book?

Sara Brooks was one of seventeen children raised by landowning African American farmers in Alabama. Hers is a lively and evocative account of growing up on the land in a loving family and a harsh coming of age at the hands of an abusive man. Like many southern black women of the era, Brooks is able to escape the bleak conditions of her life by moving first to Mobile and then to Cleveland where she worked as a domestic, eventually acquiring her own home and reuniting with the children she had been forced to leave behind. Hers is a hopeful and richly textured story of resistance and resilience.


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All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw

By Theodore Rosengarten

All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw

Why this book?

Historian Ted Rosengarten assembled this riveting account from hours of conversation with 84-year-old Nate Shaw. Born to a former slave, Shaw began picking cotton for white landowners at the age of nine. Independent and proud, Shaw resisted the Jim Crow system, ultimately joining the interracial Alabama Sharecroppers Union (SCU), organized in the 1930s with the support of the Communist Party. The SCU demanded rights to sell surplus crops and to cultivate gardens, an act often forbidden in order to keep sharecroppers dependent on landowners for food.

When Shaw was 47, he faced down a group of armed white law enforcement officers who had come to confiscate a neighbor’s harvest. For this act of defiance, Shaw served 12 years in prison. This is the moving tale of a man who concluded “I was the man I wanted to be, the man my masters didn't want to say was real.”


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Mothers of the South: Portraiture of the White Tenant Farm Woman

By Margaret Jarman Hagood

Mothers of the South: Portraiture of the White Tenant Farm Woman

Why this book?

Strictly speaking, this is not a first-person account, but it includes dozens of detailed case studies drawn from interviews with white tenant farm women in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. It was written in the 1930s by the pioneering sociologist Margaret Jarman Hagood, one of a group of practitioners at University of North Carolina who sought to produce academic studies that advanced solutions to the socio-economic problems that plagued the rural South. Although Hagood feared that “it is impossible for me to do justice to it either in observing or recording,” her study paints a vivid picture of life among white women who raised children and worked the land on the South’s hardscrabble farms.


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Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of Growing Up Poor and Black in the Rural South

By Anne Moody

Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of Growing Up Poor and Black in the Rural South

Why this book?

Moody’s wrenching account of growing up black and desperately poor in rural 1950s Mississippi reveals the ways in which the Jim Crow system undermined the stability of black families, deprived them of decent housing and education, and trapped them in generational poverty. She reveals the grinding destitution of sharecropping life and the daily indignities whites inflicted on blacks, even small children. An inquisitive and intelligent girl, Moody was determined to go to college, a feat she achieved thanks to a basketball scholarship.

At Tougaloo College, she became deeply involved in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s fight to bring integrated facilities and voting rights to Mississippi. This is a story of deep disillusionment and fierce resistance.


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Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South

By Melton A. McLaurin

Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South

Why this book?

Separate Pasts is McLaurin’s account of his 1950s boyhood in the tiny hamlet of Wade, North Carolina, years when the Jim Crow system still reigned. He describes the complex, interconnected lives of the town’s white and black families, and his own confusion as he tried to make sense of the contradictions he observed in his world. A painfully honest account of a white boy’s reckoning with the legacies of segregation and oppression, McLaurin reveals how his own relationships with black neighbors undermined the racist beliefs he was taught.


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