The best books about the Underground Railroad

Many authors have picked their favorite books about the Underground Railroad and why they recommend each book.

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Book cover of The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead,

Why this book?

This Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Colson Whitehead seems to grow heavier and darker with each chapter, but it is an important read because it is steeped in real-life American slave history. If you have never read any type of Black magical realism, where one foot stands in the real world and another in a strange, almost parallel universe, then you might want to start with this one.

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Book cover of A Freedom Such as Heaven Intended

A Freedom Such as Heaven Intended

By Amanda Lauer,

Why this book?

A Freedom Such as Heaven Intended is a wonderful book whose main character is an educated biracial slave woman who escapes the abuse of her owner by enlisting the help of conductors of the Underground Railroad. This beautiful book, part of a series of five books, gives the reader an excellent glimpse into the life of a black woman during the Civil War, so I learned a great deal about a runaway slave’s plight during the Civil War.
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Book cover of We Hope for Better Things

We Hope for Better Things

By Erin Bartels,

Why this book?

A powerful, riveting, and unputdownable tale of three women from different eras (Civil War to present) that frames the issue of race relations within the context of family relationships, making the subject immensely relatable and deeply touching. Bartels spins this masterful tale with a deft touch and a caring heart to create a stunning debut. Because the characters were so vivid and the emotions so real, this book opened my eyes in new ways to an issue that remains a hot button in today’s society.

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Book cover of 72 Hour Hold

72 Hour Hold

By Bebe Moore Campbell,

Why this book?

This novel changed the way I looked a mental illness. Campbell was a tremendous author and her prose is clearly highlighted in this heart-wrenching novel about how mental illness not only impacts the sufferer but ricochets and touches everyone around them. 72 Hour Hold is an important timeless work that helps to uncover what many have suspected or even known about what their family members fight behaviorally and in the shadows of their minds. Depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety are real and so are the families they impact. What families experience and what we openly discuss are sometimes two separate…

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Book cover of The Search for the Underground Railroad in Upstate New York

The Search for the Underground Railroad in Upstate New York

By Tom Calarco,

Why this book?

This well-researched book presents a balanced account of the true heroism performed by escaped slaves, church abolishionists, anti-slavery societies, and vigilance committees to free their fellow citizens. Myths related to tunnels, quilts, and yard statues are explained, as well as the legendary contributions of John Brown and Harriet Tubman. My life’s travels have unknowingly placed me on the path of the underground railroad countless times. From shopping with my family as a child in Ogdensburg where African Americans crossed the St. Lawrence River into Canada to have owned properties in Essex, Clinton, and Franklin Counties along the trails to liberation.  

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Book cover of Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt

By Deborah Hopkinson, James E. Ransome (illustrator),

Why this book?

Clara’s story is powerful and suspenseful. Written in the first person, she tells about her life as an enslaved twelve-year-old girl who has been separated from her Momma and sent from North Farm to the Home Plantation. Although this is fiction, it is based on the history of African American quilters. For Clara, quilting means drawing a map with stitches and fabric that ultimately becomes a “freedom map,” enabling her to escape with her friend, Young Jack, and find her Momma and freedom.  The warm, luminous illustrations by James Ransome bring Clara, Young Jack, and her map to life. Ransome…

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Book cover of Before She Was Harriet

Before She Was Harriet

By Lesa Cline-Ransome, James E. Ransome (illustrator),

Why this book?

Did I save the best for last? I may have (although I recommend all of these books). This book appeals to me on so many levels. First, it tells the story of an important woman of history who was dauntless in her mission to help others to safety and freedom. Second, the dreamy, lyrical narrative is so different from how so many picture book biographies are written, yet incredibly effective. Third, the art is amazing – especially in its depiction of Harriet as an old woman when her strength was still so evident. And fourth, the story is told in…

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Book cover of Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

By Leigh Fought,

Why this book?

A self-proclaimed ‘woman’s rights man’, Douglass was one of the few men to attend the famous Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls in New York in 1848 – the starting point of the women’s rights movement in the US. His connection to women, however, went far deeper than mere political support. Douglass, indeed, always felt more comfortable in the company of women than men, be they Black or white, family members, friends, or fellow activists. This book gives us a fuller picture of these women than ever before. It is particularly strong on Anna Murray, the free Black woman who…

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Bookshelves related to the Underground Railroad