The best books on racial segregation

Many authors have picked their favorite books about racial segregation and why they recommend each book.

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Cycle of Segregation

By Maria Krysan, Kyle Crowder,

Book cover of Cycle of Segregation: Social Processes and Residential Stratification

In The Cycle of Segregation offer a major breakthrough in our understanding of the roots of residential segregation in U.S. society today. Their social-structural sorting perspective elegantly and convincingly explains how black and Hispanic segregation can persist even as minority incomes rise and discrimination and prejudice in housing markets decline.

Who am I?

My mother was the child of immigrants from Finland with grade-school educations who grew up in a small Alaskan town with no roads in or out. She came down to the “lower 48” during the Second World War to work her way through the University of Washington, where she met my father. He was a multigenerational American with two college-educated parents. His mother graduated from Whitman College in 1919 and looked down on my mother as a child of poorly educated immigrants. She was also openly hostile toward Catholics, Blacks, and Jews and probably didn’t think much of Finns either. Witnessing my grandmother’s disdain for minorities and the poor including my mother, I learned about racism and class prejudice firsthand. But I am my mother’s son, and I resented my grandmother’s self-satisfied posturing. Therefore I’ve always been on the side of the underdog and made it my business to learn all that I could about how inequalities are produced and perpetuated in the United States, and to do all I can to make the world a fairer, more egalitarian place.

I wrote...

American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass

By Douglas S. Massey, Nancy A. Denton,

Book cover of American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass

What is my book about?

American Apartheid describes how Black residential segregation was created during the first seven decades of the 20th century by powerful white actors in the public and private sectors, who collectively worked to isolate black in-migrants within ghettos for purposes of exclusion and exploitation. As a result, high levels of segregation prevailed throughout metropolitan America as of 1980.

Public policies enacted during the 1930s institutionalized the discriminatory of realtors and lenders, ensuring that Blacks were confined to recognized Black neighborhoods and that these were cut off from capital and credit to guarantee their decline. As Black poverty rates increased during the 1970s and 1980s, segregation served to concentrate deprivation spatially to create a supremely disadvantaged context that acted to perpetuate black poverty over the life course and across the generations, giving rise to what in the 1980s was known as the “urban underclass.”

Let the Children March

By Monica Clark-Robinson, Frank Morrison (illustrator),

Book cover of Let the Children March

Beautifully written and illustrated, this book portrays the story and the outcome of thousands of African American children who volunteered to march for their civil rights after hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak. I think it will be inspiring to children to find out that kids their own age were so brave and were able to make a significant impact on our history.

Who am I?

Laura Freeman is a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honoree. Her work has been recognized with an NAACP Image Award, reached the New York Times Best Seller List, been honored by the Society of Illustrators, the Georgia Center For The Book, and in the Annuals for Communication Arts and American Illustration. She has illustrated over thirty children’s books, most of them biographies.

I illustrated...

Dream Builder: The Story of Architect Philip Freelon

By Kelly Starling Lyons, Laura Freeman (illustrator),

Book cover of Dream Builder: The Story of Architect Philip Freelon

What is my book about?

Philip Freelon's grandfather was an acclaimed painter of the Harlem Renaissance. His father was a successful businessman who attended the 1963 March on Washington.

When Phil decided to attend architecture school, he created his own focus on African American and Islamic designers. He later chose not to build casinos or prisons, instead of concentrating on schools, libraries, and museums–buildings that connect people with heritage and fill hearts with joy. And in 2009, Phil's team won a commission that let him use his personal history in service to the country's: the extraordinary Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Quickest Kid in Clarksville

By Pat Zietlow Miller, Frank Morrison (illustrator),

Book cover of The Quickest Kid in Clarksville

This is another book about Wilma Rudolph, but this one focuses on how Wilma inspired two young girls in Clarksville, Tennessee, Wilma’s birthplace. Alta is The Quickest Kid in Clarksville, but worries about Charmaine, the new girl with brand-new, “stripes down the sides” shoes. The author’s writing is fast-paced with a rhythm to it, perfect for a running book about winning, losing, and friendship. Yes, friendship, as when Wilma Rudolph arrives for a parade to celebrate her Olympic wins, the girls finally agree to carry Alta's big banner to the parade in a relay race like Wilma won at the Olympics.

Who am I?

I’m a multi-award-winning picture book author of many types of books, from The Pumpkin Runner to Badger’s Perfect Garden. I’ve always been a reader more than an athlete, but throughout my life, I’ve enjoyed running - running down a dusty Kansas backroad, running to the pasture to call in the cows, running to the stream to climb a cottonwood. When I reached my sixties, I finally decided it was time to run a half-marathon. Partway through the race, I broke my foot! But I persevered. When I crossed the finish line, I felt a little like Joshua Summerhayes in The Pumpkin Runner.

I wrote...

The Pumpkin Runner

By Marsha Diane Arnold, Brad Sneed (illustrator),

Book cover of The Pumpkin Runner

What is my book about?

The Pumpkin Runner is the story of a man who ran for the joy of it. It is based on the real-life adventures of a 61-year-old Australian farmer who, amidst ridicule, entered an ultra-marathon from Sydney to Melbourne. 

The story is a combination of fact and fiction told in the style of a tall tale. Inspired by Cliff Young, the story is fictionalized with the likable character, Joshua Summerhayes. Both had a generous, humble spirit and knew how to persevere. The author gave Joshua a dog to run along with him – spunky Yellow Dog. Everyone believed it was pumpkins that gave Joshua the energy to run, but readers learn that it was much more than that.

The South Strikes Back

By Hodding Carter,

Book cover of The South Strikes Back

While many books are written after the event or events contained in the book, this book is contemporary to the events it relates to. In this case the birth and growth of the Citizens Councils in the Deep South in the mid-1950s. 

The author and then managing editor of the Greenville Democratic Times sets out, in a clear and readily understood way, the mood of the day among the white-collar political and business classes in the months and years immediately following the Brown v Board of Education decision.

It’s a worthy read and a touchstone of the rising political temperatures of those times.  

Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South in the 1950s and 60s for many years. Keen to understand not just events in that timeframe, I also needed to understand how those entrenched and diametrically opposed positions had occurred. What triggered the responses of water cannon, German shepherd dogs, and Billy clubs to seemingly peaceful students marching or seated in a particular section of a café? Over a period of seventeen years, I amassed a private collection of books, magazines, newspapers, over two hundred in all, along with material from various state-run Departments of Archives of History, further amplifying my fascination and providing fodder for my book.

I wrote...

The Life and Times of Clyde Kennard

By Derek R. King,

Book cover of The Life and Times of Clyde Kennard

What is my book about?

With many recognizable names from the American civil rights movement, a few are overlooked by history. The award-winning biography is about the forgotten history of Clyde Kennard, a man who used his desire for education to challenge institutionalized segregation in Mississippi after being denied admission. 

For many, Kennard’s attempt to enroll at Mississippi State College (now the University of Southern Mississippi) is viewed as the first serious attempt to integrate any public school at the college or higher level in Mississippi. This book tells the compelling story of his attempt to enter MSC, placed in the context of key events in the civil rights movement. Kennard’s story is an uplifting and inspiring example of perseverance, and committed determination to right wrongs.

The Color of Law

By Richard Rothstein,

Book cover of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

When I was trying to figure out how the city of Charlotte became segregated, this book was a godsend. Rothstein explodes the myth that segregation in America grew primarily from individual choices, such as White people fleeing a neighborhood when a Black family moved in. He shows how local, state, and federal governments passed laws and made policies that created the housing and school segregation that much of the nation lives with today.  

Who am I?

I grew up in a mostly white town in Ohio, where, as a White woman, I didn’t have to think much at all about race. During college in North Carolina, I first began to consider racism. As a journalist, I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) that you can’t write in a meaningful way about social justice issues without connecting them to history. The books I’ve recommended provide that connection. Once you make it, you’ll never be able to see the world the same way. 

I wrote...

Money Rock: A Family's Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South

By Pam Kelley,

Book cover of Money Rock: A Family's Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South

What is my book about?

Money Rock is a riveting social history, by turns action-packed, uplifting, and tragic, of a striving Black family, swept up and transformed by America’s 1980s cocaine epidemic. As a young man, Belton Lamont Platt, known on the streets of Charlotte as Money Rock, was hard-working, charismatic, and generous, sometimes to a fault. In the 1980s, those qualities helped make him one of the city’s most successful cocaine dealers. Pam Kelley first met Money Rock when she was a young Charlotte Observer reporter covering his trial. Decades later, the two reconnected, and Kelley dug deeper. As she researched the story of his family, she also discovered a New South city that hadn’t escaped its Jim Crow past. 

Making Whiteness

By Grace Elizabeth Hale,

Book cover of Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940

In this academic work, Hale explores what she terms as “spectacle lynchings” and the shift from private to public violence. Hale considers how newspapers, photographs, and radio broadcasts brought news of these brutal scenes to an audience of tens of thousands. Through her careful examination, Hale lays out how the media shaped a national narrative that is relevant for both understanding conversations about racial violence and for considering how mass media shapes our current perspectives.

Who am I?

I remember when I saw the photograph of the lynching of Rubin Stacy, his corpse surrounded by white girls in their Sunday best dresses. For me the immediate question was, why would white parents take their children on an outing to this? What purpose is this memorial photograph serving? I have spent over twenty years exploring the answers, learning how cultures persist by teaching their dominant beliefs to the next generation, and considering the perpetuation of white supremacy from generation to generation.

I wrote...

Raising Racists: The Socialization of White Children in the Jim Crow South

By Kristina DuRocher,

Book cover of Raising Racists: The Socialization of White Children in the Jim Crow South

What is my book about?

White children rested at the core of the system of segregation between 1890 and 1939 because their participation was crucial to ensuring the future of white supremacy. Their socialization in the segregated South offers an examination of white supremacy from the inside, showcasing the culture's efforts to preserve itself by teaching its beliefs to the next generation.

My book reveals how white adults in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries continually reinforced race and gender roles to maintain white supremacy by tracing out the methods and spaces in which white adults fashioned an identity for their children. This socialization included participating in lynchings, and children’s involvement played a central role in these rituals of racial violence, revealing the lessons such incidents taught to white youth about using brute force to uphold racial segregation.

The Highest Tribute

By Kekla Magoon, Laura Freeman (illustrator),

Book cover of The Highest Tribute: Thurgood Marshall's Life, Leadership, and Legacy

The through-line in this picture book biography is Thurgood Marshall's quest for change, which the author says started early in his life. Marshall grew up in Baltimore under segregation. His parents wanted greater opportunities for their children. Marshall pushed against racial boundaries in college and beyond. As a young lawyer he won an early court order desegregating a school, and went on to argue a series of landmark desegregation cases before the Supreme Court. After becoming the first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice, he continued to push for change by persuading his colleagues on the bench. This book highlights the Court's ability to make change and honors a trailblazing man who left a lasting legacy. Helpful back matter includes a timeline and list of important Supreme Court cases.

Who am I?

As a former lawyer, I want young readers to understand the judicial system and to appreciate how the structure of our government, with its three branches, buttresses our freedoms. That's why I wrote The Supreme Court and Us. My book surveys the court, its function, and some of its important cases. Reading it together with the other recommended titles will offer a multi-dimensional picture of the Court, its Justices, and its work. Each Supreme Court case is a fascinating story. I want to share these stories with kids. We need a knowledgeable new generation to be engaged in civic life – and these books are a good place to start.

I wrote...

The Supreme Court and Us

By Christy Mihaly, Neely Daggett (illustrator),

Book cover of The Supreme Court and Us

What is my book about?

This book introduces young readers to the U.S. Supreme Court, its history, its processes, and its significance. The illustrator, Neely Daggett, engages readers with her kid-friendly, comic-style format showing the young protagonists, Ada and Bea, as they tour Washington, D.C. and learn about the Supreme Court. The two girls joke and talk with various helpful characters, including some past Supreme Court Justices, participants in important legal cases, and the Constitution itself. They come to understand how the Court has shaped our lives. Cases discussed include Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education, and disputes over whether schools can require the pledge of allegiance. Back matter provides additional depth and details. 

The Strange Career of Jim Crow

By C. Vann Woodward,

Book cover of The Strange Career of Jim Crow

This succinct and persuasive study of the profound failure to integrate the freed slave population in the U.S. after 1865 is a rare example of a scholarly work’s direct influence on governments and the process of reform.  The author’s premise and analysis is that popular and local official antipathy to emancipation led to enforced, violent segregation (Jim Crow) that was constitutionally affirmed in the 1896 Plessy case.  The book’s three editions follow the history of civil rights reform from the 1950s to the 1970s and the Supreme Court’s gradual dismantling of the Plessy rule. While Jim Crow law has been overturned, versions of real-life Jim Crow conditions remain.

Who am I?

I taught American, European, and World History at the University of British Columbia for over 30 years. I was constantly reminded of the dynamics and consequences of slavery and how a history of black America should be more prevalent in understanding the development of American culture, institutions, and identity over time. In writing two books on colonial America and the American Revolution, the roots of America’s racial divide became clearer and the logic of permanence seemed irresistible. My Shaping the New World was inspired by a course I taught for years on slavery in the Americas. Compiling the bibliography and writing the chapters on slave women and families helped to refine my understanding of the “peculiar institution” in all its both common and varied characteristics throughout the Americas.

I wrote...

Shaping the New World: African Slavery in the Americas, 1500-1888

By Eric Nellis,

Book cover of Shaping the New World: African Slavery in the Americas, 1500-1888

What is my book about?

Between 1500 and the middle of the nineteenth century, some 12.5 million slaves were sent as bonded labour from Africa to the European settlements in the Americas. Shaping the New World introduces students to the origins, growth, and consolidation of African slavery in the Americas and race-based slavery's impact on the economic, social, and cultural development of the New World.

While the book explores the idea of the African slave as a tool in the formation of new American societies, it also acknowledges the culture, humanity, and importance of the slave as a person and highlights the role of women in slave societies.

Claudette Colvin

By Phillip Hoose,

Book cover of Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice

Claudette Colvin best summarized making good trouble when she said, “When it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You can’t sugarcoat it. You have to take a stand and say, ‘This is not right.’” In this beautiful book, Philip Hoose shines a light on the extraordinary, but little-known teenager, Claudette Colvin, who sparked the historic bus boycott, even before Rosa Parks. Through Colvin’s own words, Hoose brings to life the segregated world in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s. I picked this book so that readers will learn that many who change the world receive little recognition.

Who am I?

I am an award-winning author who has written books for all ages and genres – a Young Adult historical novel, several works of non-fiction for middle school students, two picture books for children, an adult work of non-fiction, and an adult memoir. I love a great story, and, for each book, I target the audience I believe is best suited to my narrative. Several of my books were inspired by my mother’s story of childhood immigration as she fled Nazi Germany for America and the emotional legacy of that experience.

I wrote...

Is It Night or Day?: A Novel of Immigration and Survival, 1938-1942

By Fern Schumer Chapman,

Book cover of Is It Night or Day?: A Novel of Immigration and Survival, 1938-1942

What is my book about?

Civil Rights activist John Lewis has famously said: “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and redeem the soul of America.” What did he mean? Speak truth to power. Make a difference. Never give up. Acts large and small fall into Lewis’s philosophy of “making good trouble.” 

My mother, Edith, was an unaccompanied minor who fled Nazi Germany for America in 1938, and she falls into the category of never giving up. When she was only 12 years old, Edith traveled all by herself from her home in Germany to a place that seemed as foreign as the moon: Chicago, Illinois. My historical novel, Is It Night or Day?, a Junior Library Guild title, captures the story of the challenges many immigrants face as they make a new life in America. For my mother, simply surviving was an act of making good trouble.

Motor City Green

By Joseph Stanhope Cialdella,

Book cover of Motor City Green: A Century of Landscapes and Environmentalism in Detroit

Nature takes on different meanings in the landscape of the post-industrial city. On a city block in the middle of a shrinking city, the return of green space can signify abandonment, disinvestment, and decay instead of healing, flourishing, or balance. Cialdella brings much needed nuance and historical context to the place of nature in postindustrial Detroit, providing a wider range of stories about the ways in which gardens and green, from the wide expanse of Belle Isle to urban potato patches and backyard sunflowers, have helped connect communities to the city and each other. Nature in the city doesn’t replace people; it helps them flourish.

Who am I?

I have always been both a nature lover and committed urbanite, and those twin passions have shaped my approach to history. My very first published writing (when I was ten years old) was an essay about a willow tree in an urban park I loved in Minneapolis, MN. Now, as a historian, I have written about guerrilla gardening in the shadow of the Berlin wall, forestry outside Detroit, and working-class foraging practices in the nineteenth century. My interest in urban nature remains not just academic, but personal. On weekends, you’ll find me mapping native and invasive species with my ten-year-old son along the River Rouge in Dearborn, MI.

I wrote...

Germany’s Urban Frontiers: Nature and History on the Edge of the Nineteenth-Century City

By Kristin Poling,

Book cover of Germany’s Urban Frontiers: Nature and History on the Edge of the Nineteenth-Century City

What is my book about?

In an era of transatlantic migration, Germans were fascinated by the myth of the frontier. Yet, for many, they were most likely to encounter frontier landscapes of new settlement and the taming of nature not in far-flung landscapes abroad, but on the edges of Germany’s many growing cities. From gardens, forests, marshes, and wastelands, Germans on the edge of the city confronted not only questions of planning and control, but also their own histories and futures as a community.

Germany’s Urban Frontiers tells their story, examining how nineteenth-century notions of progress, community, and nature shaped the changing spaces of German urban peripheries as the walls and boundaries that had so long defined central European cities disappeared.

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