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How to Understand the Struggle for Black Freedom After Emancipation

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Five important books that tell the tale

By Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a professor of history at the University of Delaware. Here, Dunbar recommends five books about the brutal struggle that black Americans faced in the epochal transition from slavery to freedom.

America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877

by Eric Foner

Harper & Row, 1988
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Now a classic text, Reconstruction examines the period that followed the Civil War. Foner recounts, in stunning detail, the triumph and tragedy of a nation that attempted to rebuild a democratic republic in the shadow of slavery and after years of violent conflict. The book’s major concerns—citizenship, civil rights, and the legacy of racism—remain hotly contested to this day.

Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War

by Tera W. Hunter

Harvard University Press,
1998Buy this book

After the Civil War, black men and women created their lives anew as free people, often taking to the open road in the attempt to distance themselves from their memories of slavery and the cotton fields. Hunter offers a compelling narrative about the lives of black women in the urban South who refused to buckle under the challenges of black codes, racial violence, and the rise of Jim Crow. To ’Joy My Freedom chronicles the experiences of the women who worked to rebuild families, earn an income, and find ways to live and love in turbulent times.

Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching

by Paula J. Giddings

HarperCollins, 2008
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In this meticulously researched biography, Giddings uses the life of Ida B. Wells to expose the racial terror faced by African Americans in the post-Emancipation years. Born enslaved in Mississippi, Wells confronted the vulnerability of black life by challenging white supremacy. As a journalist and crusader in the fight to end lynching, she held the nation accountable for its sins.

Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America

by Khalil Gibran Muhammad

Harvard University Press, 2011
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Muhammad’s book is an impressive achievement and a timely read. He explores the perceived markers of race and criminality in the first generation of black men and women born after slavery. The Condemnation of Blackness explains how the notion of black criminality has left a devastating mark on African-American lives from the Jim Crow era up to the present.

Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South

by Talitha L. LeFlouria

University of North Carolina Press, 2016
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This beautifully written book leads its readers on the journey from Emancipation to the devastating convict-leasing system in Georgia. Centering her narrative around black women, LeFlouria shows how the South’s convict-labor system forced African Americans into labor camps and factories where the conditions were similar to enslavement. Chained in Silence examines the exploitation of black women’s bodies, the beginnings of mass incarceration, and the rise of the modern New South

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