The most recommended books about enslaved people

Who picked these books? Meet our 119 experts.

119 authors created a book list connected to slaves, and here are their favorite slave books.
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Book cover of Illusions of Emancipation: The Pursuit of Freedom and Equality in the Twilight of Slavery

Frank J. Cirillo Author Of The Abolitionist Civil War: Immediatists and the Struggle to Transform the Union

From my list on the long and difficult fight against slavery in America.

Who am I?

I spent many a night growing up glued to the television, watching Ken Burns’ Civil War. But as I got older, I found my interests stretching beyond the battles and melancholic music on the screen. I decided to become a historian of abolitionism–the radical reform movement that fought to end the evils of slavery and racial prejudice. Through my research, I seek to explain the substantial influence of the abolitionist movement as well as its significant limitations. I received my Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 2017, and have since held positions at such institutions as The New School, the University of Bonn, and the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Frank's book list on the long and difficult fight against slavery in America

Frank J. Cirillo Why did Frank love this book?

Reidy's book is an elegant and engaging read, but it is not an easy one.

It illustrates how the process of emancipation actually played out on the ground after Abraham Lincoln issued his famed Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. It takes us away from the marble edifices of Civil War Washington and into the dirt, showing us how messy the process of implementing freedom truly was.

It does so, moreover, by centering our attention on the actual men and women fighting for their own freedom. Reidy offers us historians a seminal reminder: change is not made solely from on high.

By Joseph P. Reidy,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

As students of the Civil War have long known, emancipation was not merely a product of Lincoln's proclamation or of Confederate defeat in April 1865. It was a process that required more than legal or military action. With enslaved people fully engaged as actors, emancipation necessitated a fundamental reordering of a way of life whose implications stretched well beyond the former slave states. Slavery did not die quietly or quickly, nor did freedom fulfill every dream of the enslaved or their allies. The process unfolded unevenly.

In this sweeping reappraisal of slavery's end during the Civil War era, Joseph P.…

Book cover of Chains

Jeffery McKenna Author Of Saving Dr. Warren... "A True Patriot"

From my list on for young adults on the American Revolution.

Who am I?

I have loved American history all my life. I thought I knew the events and key figures in the American Revolution. Then, in 2001, I learned about Dr. Joseph Warren. The more I learned, the more I wanted to tell his story. I travelled to Boston. I walked the Freedom Trail. I followed the red bricks that wind through historic Boston until they end at Bunker Hill. I saw the marble statue of Dr. Warren at Bunker Hill honoring his death. His influence and footprints are on every location along the Freedom Trail. My passion is to tell his story; my hope is that all Americans can remember his sacrifice.

Jeffery's book list on for young adults on the American Revolution

Jeffery McKenna Why did Jeffery love this book?

Chains tells the story of the enslaved during a revolution for independence. The irony of the enslaved risking their well-being for a new nation whose founding and ideals fell short of granting all men and all women “certain inalienable rights,” is not missed in these pages. In fact, it is masterfully delivered for all readers – young and old. Anderson is a master weaver. She beautifully threads stunning strands of real history within the tapestry of her modern classic. Most Americans are not aware that the mayor and other leaders of New York nearly succeeded in ending the rebellion against their King. In the late spring of 1776, a plan formed to assassinate General Washington. Anderson weaves the intrigue of the assassination with the role that an enslaved girl could have had in squashing it - effectively saving the American revolution.  

By Laurie Halse Anderson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Chains as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 10, 11, 12, and 13.

What is this book about?

Isabel and her sister, Ruth, are slaves. Sold from one owner to the next, they arrive in New York as the Americans are fighting for their independence, and the English are struggling to maintain control. Soon Isabel is struggling too. Struggling to keep herself and her sister safe in a world in which they have no control. With a rare and compelling voice, this haunting novel tells not only the story of a remarkable girl and her incredible strength, but also of a time and place in which slavery was the order of the day and lives were valued like…

Book cover of The Prophets

Timothy Jay Smith Author Of Fire on the Island: A Romantic Thriller

From Timothy's 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Who am I?

Author Writer Wanderer Humanitarian Philanthropist Woke

Timothy's 3 favorite reads in 2023

Timothy Jay Smith Why did Timothy love this book?

It described the world of plantation slavery through the eyes of two gay slaves. It was enlightening and chilling at the same time. I had no idea what the truth was about the daily life of slaves.

This book was about the enduring love between two men despite crushing odds. It was so beautifully written it took my breath away.

By Robert Jones, Jr.,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?


'This visionary and deeply evocative debut carves a radiant love story out of the bleakest of landscapes.' Waterstones - Best Books to Look Out For in 2021

'An Outstanding novel' Guardian
'A lyrical, poetic novel' Independent
'Epic in its scale' Marlon James, author of Black Leopard, Red Wolf
'A rare marvel' Ocean Vuong, author of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
'Magisterial' Courttia Newland, author of A River Called Time
'A spellbinding debut' COSMO
'Ambitious and intense' Vanity Fair

In this blinding debut, Robert Jones Jr. blends the lyricism of Toni Morrison with the vivid prose…

Book cover of Harriet Jacobs: The Remarkable Adventures of the Woman Who Wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Katie McCabe Author Of Mighty Justice: My Life in Civil Rights

From my list on Black women disruptors.

Who am I?

Improbable trailblazers have fascinated me ever since I told the story of Black cardiac surgery pioneer Vivien Thomas in a 1989 Washingtonian Magazine article that won the National Magazine Award and inspired the Emmy-winning HBO film Something the Lord Made. My passion for chronicling unheralded genius has led me from one of the most remote corners of the American west to Baltimore operating rooms to the classrooms and courtrooms of Washington, DC. My decade-long collaboration with civil rights pioneer Dovey Johnson Roundtree in co-writing her autobiography Mighty Justice whetted my interest in a host of fierce African American women pathbreakers.

Katie's book list on Black women disruptors

Katie McCabe Why did Katie love this book?

Like the thousands of other readers who’d been haunted by Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl when it resurfaced during the civil rights era, I had questions.  Were the horrific events of her enslavement and escape really true?  Did Jacobs herself write the book, or was it the work of the white abolitionist she identified as her “editor”? In this biography, we’re given answers based on the documentary evidence Jean Yellin unearthed over 30 years of research. We learn that Jacobs’ stranger-than-fiction slavery narrative is factually accurate and that it was the work of Jacobs herself. In our present age of exploded myths, there’s something breathtaking about that discovery, and about Yellin’s masterful rendition of the life of an icon of Black female resistance.

By Jean Fagan Yellin,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl remains the most-read woman's slave narrative of all time. Jean Fagan Yellin recounts the experiences that shaped Incidents-the years Jacobs spent hiding in her grandmother's attic from her sexually abusive master-as well as illuminating the wider world into which Jacobs escaped. Yellin's ground-breaking scholarship restores a life whose sorrows and triumphs reflect the history of the nineteenth century, from slavery to the Civil War, to Reconstruction and beyond. Winner of the 2004 Frederick Douglass Prize, presented by Yale University's Gilder-Lehrman centre for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, awarded…

Book cover of Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865

John C. Rodrigue Author Of Freedom's Crescent: The Civil War and the Destruction of Slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley

From my list on emancipation during the U.S. Civil War.

Who am I?

I am a historian who has always been fascinated by the problem of slavery in American history. Although a “Yankee” by birth and upbringing, I have also always been drawn to the history of the American South—probably because it runs so counter to the dominant narrative of U.S. history. My childhood interest in history—especially in wars, and the Civil War in particular—was transformed in college into a serious engagement with the causes and consequences of the Civil War. I pursued this interest in undertaking graduate study, and I have devoted my entire scholarly career to the examination of slavery and emancipation—and their consequences for today.

John's book list on emancipation during the U.S. Civil War

John C. Rodrigue Why did John love this book?

This epic study traces the destruction of slavery throughout the United States during the Civil War. James Oakes argues, provocatively, that the Civil War did not “become” a war against slavery, as most scholars maintain. Instead, Abraham Lincoln and other Republicans were committed to a war against slavery right from the start. Oakes roots Union emancipation policy in the prewar struggles over slavery, as that institution became an all-consuming issue in national politics. Once hostilities commenced, and as enslaved persons responded by seeking shelter behind Union military lines, Republicans were ready to put their emancipationist views into practice. I may not necessarily agree with Oakes’s argument, but his book is a monumental achievement and essential reading on the topic.

By James Oakes,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Freedom National is a groundbreaking history of emancipation that joins the political initiatives of Lincoln and the Republicans in Congress with the courageous actions of Union soldiers and runaway slaves in the South. It shatters the widespread conviction that the Civil War was first and foremost a war to restore the Union and only gradually, when it became a military necessity, a war to end slavery. These two aims-"Liberty and Union, one and inseparable"-were intertwined in Republican policy from the very start of the war.

By summer 1861 the federal government invoked military authority to begin freeing slaves, immediately and…

Book cover of The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War

William Barney Author Of Rebels in the Making: The Secession Crisis and the Birth of the Confederacy

From my list on an offbeat look at the Confederacy.

Who am I?

From a youth devouring the books of Bruce Catton to my formative years as a historian, I’ve been fascinated by the Civil War, especially the thinking and experiences of southerners who lived through the cataclysmic war years. In my teaching and writing, I’ve tried to focus on the lived experiences, the hopes and fears, of southerners who seemingly embraced secession and an independent Southern Confederacy in the expectation of a short, victorious war only to become disenchanted when the war they thought would come to pass turned into a long, bloody stalemate. The books I’ve listed share my passion for the war and open new and often unexpected windows into the Confederate experience.

William's book list on an offbeat look at the Confederacy

William Barney Why did William love this book?

This is the best source for understanding that the Confederacy, contrary to accepted wisdom, was not the South writ large. In a fast-paced narrative Freehling identifies the anti-Confederate dissenters – free as well as enslaved – who resisted Confederate rule and undermined it from within. He shows conclusively how Union victory was aided immeasurably by the lack of unity in the Confederacy.

By William W. Freehling,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Why did the Confederacy lose the Civil War? Most historians point to the larger number of Union troops, for example, or the North's greater industrial might. Now, in The South Vs. the South, one of America's leading authorities on the Civil War era offers an entirely new answer to this question.
William Freehling argues that anti-Confederate Southerners-specifically, border state whites and southern blacks-helped cost the Confederacy the war. White men in such border states as Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland, Freehling points out, were divided in their loyalties-but far more joined the Union army (or simply stayed home) than marched off…

Book cover of Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation

Andrew M. Wehrman Author Of The Contagion of Liberty: The Politics of Smallpox in the American Revolution

From my list on understanding health and politics in the early US.

Who am I?

I am a historian of early American history who discovered the history of medicine somewhat by accident. As a history graduate student, I wanted to understand how ordinary Americans experienced the American Revolution. While digging through firsthand accounts written by average Americans, I came across a diary written by a sailor named Ashley Bowen. Although Bowen wrote made entries daily beginning in the 1760s, he hardly mentioned any of the political events that typically mark the coming of the American Revolution. Instead, day after day, he wrote about outbreaks of smallpox and how he volunteered to help his community. From then on, I began to understand just how central and inseparable health and politics are. 

Andrew's book list on understanding health and politics in the early US

Andrew M. Wehrman Why did Andrew love this book?

Gretchen Long’s book Doctoring Freedom includes remarkable stories not only of how Black people were abused and left out of American health care, such as it was in the 19th century, but centers the book on Black Americans’ efforts to support their health and their citizenship while being denied both. Long’s finely detailed case studies of Black doctors, such as John Donalson Austin who had been an enslaved herbal healer who was denied the right to practice when free, is one of many stories Long uncovers as she details the ways Black healers and doctors used clinics, hospitals, and dispensaries as sites of resistance to both medical and political authorities.

By Gretchen Long,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

For enslaved and newly freed African Americans, attaining freedom and citizenship without health for themselves and their families would have been an empty victory. Even before emancipation, African Americans recognized that control of their bodies was a critical battleground in their struggle for autonomy, and they devised strategies to retain at least some of that control. In Doctoring Freedom, Gretchen Long tells the stories of African Americans who fought for access to both medical care and medical education, showing the important relationship between medical practice and political identity.
Working closely with antebellum medical journals, planters' diaries, agricultural publications, letters from…

Book cover of Finding Charity's Folk: Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland

Rebecca L. Davis Author Of Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions That Changed American Politics

From my list on why sex matters to US history.

Who am I?

I never set out to be a historian of sexuality, but the more I read, the more convinced I became of the centrality of sex to politics, culture, religion, and social change. I am fascinated by histories of sexuality in the making and shaping of individual identities and behaviors, and I’m also drawn to histories of other topics—politics, religion, enslavement, leisure—that also teach us something about the history of sex and sexuality. These interests drew me to the podcast Sexing History, where I edit the stories and help produce the episodes. I love to read widely to find histories of sex in unexpected places.

Rebecca's book list on why sex matters to US history

Rebecca L. Davis Why did Rebecca love this book?

What does it mean to be free—and how can you prove that you are? Millward’s utterly engrossing book demonstrates how significant Black women’s reproductive sexuality was to their pursuit of freedom. Following the formal end of US participation in the international slave trade in 1808, white enslavers placed unprecedented demands on enslaved Black women to bear more children. Because the laws defined the child according to the mother’s free or unfree status, enslaved women literally birthed the property of white enslavers. But what if a currently enslaved person proved that the womb from which they entered the world belonged to a free person? Millward shows how Black women and their descendants paved their own pathways to freedom.

By Jessica Millward,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Finding Charity's Folk as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Finding Charity's Folk highlights the experiences of enslaved Maryland women who negotiated for their own freedom, many of whom have been largely lost to historical records. Based on more than fifteen hundred manumission records and numerous manuscript documents from a diversity of archives, Jessica Millward skillfully brings together African American social and gender history to provide a new means of using biography as a historical genre.

Millward opens with a striking discussion about how researching the life of a single enslaved woman, Charity Folks, transforms our understanding of slavery and freedom in Revolutionary America. For African American women such as…

Book cover of The Indigo Girl

Megan Easley-Walsh Author Of What Edward Heard

From my list on historical fiction with strong women by women.

Who am I?

Before I became an author of ten historical fiction novels (thus far), I was a reader of historical fiction. The challenges of history are best navigated by strong characters. Throughout history, women have played an integral role but have been overlooked too often. Historical fiction with strong women brings these characters to life, giving them a voice and agency. Whatever role the woman has, from nurse to investigator to planter to maid to scientist to artist and more… interesting characters are necessary to activate an engaging plot, and that is something I look for both as a reader and as an author.

Megan's book list on historical fiction with strong women by women

Megan Easley-Walsh Why did Megan love this book?

Sometimes strength, particularly for women in history, has been quieter. The colonial early American setting of The Indigo Girl echoed part of the painting’s story from my book as well. In The Indigo Girl, Eliza is willing to speak up, to do what is right, even when it’s the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. As a huge art history fan, and as a hobbyist painter, I am always interested in learning more about where pigments and colors come from. This story told about that, but it also explored forbidden friendship and love and touched the heart, leaving a stain of remembrance, deeper than the indigo itself. 

By Natasha Boyd,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this incredible story of ambition, betrayal, and sacrifice, an extraordinary sixteen-year-old girl in Colonial South Carolina defies all expectations to achieve her dream.

An incredible story of dangerous and hidden friendships, ambition, betrayal, and sacrifice.

The year is 1739. Eliza Lucas is sixteen years old when her father leaves her in charge of their family's three plantations in rural South Carolina and then proceeds to bleed the estates dry in pursuit of his military ambitions. Tensions with the British, and with the Spanish in Florida, just a short way down the coast, are rising, and slaves are starting to…

Book cover of Up From Slavery

Thomas Bailey & Katherine Joslin Author Of Theodore Roosevelt: A Literary Life

From my list on Theodore Roosevelt read in the White House.

Who are we?

We live in the countryside of southwest Michigan in a farmhouse dating back to the 1830s on land once owned by James Fenimore Cooper. The land itself has stories to tell that intrigue us as readers and writers ourselves. Katherine’s passion for the writings of Jane Addams and Edith Wharton led her to Theodore Roosevelt, a kindred male voice in American literature at the turn of the twentieth century. Tom’s passion for environmental writers and activism led him to the books and essays of the 26th President, who believed that good writing sometimes leads to good laws! As professors and writing partners, we are delighted every time we can introduce readers to the literary Theodore Roosevelt.

Thomas' book list on Theodore Roosevelt read in the White House

Thomas Bailey & Katherine Joslin Why did Thomas love this book?

Theodore Roosevelt read the book and loved his philosophy and way of telling a life story. Autobiography is at the heart of American literature. Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute and Roosevelt’s contemporary in age and thinking, was the first writer the President invited to lunch at the White House, controversial as that invitation came to be. We love the book because, in this day of reconsidering Black history, the reader can see how Washington’s notion of self-reliance, captured in his famous admonition, “Cast down your bucket where you are,” helps to define the quest for economic and social freedom for people of color in the early 20th century. Readers will discover a compelling man with an engaging writing style who speaks to the struggles within American society that persist to this day.

By Booker T. Washington,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Originally published in 1901, ‘Up From Slavery’ is an eloquently written book by Booker T. Washington, an American educator, author, speaker, and counselor to several presidents of the United States. Booker T. Washington was a prominent leader of the African-American community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Washington was born into slavery but would become a prolific author who wrote broadly about his life experiences and the challenges facing African-Americans during his time.
In this, Washington describes events in an extraordinary life that began in bondage and culminated in worldwide recognition for his many accomplishments. In simply written…