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February 2004

Journey to Freedom · Fiction

Wild Embers
Anita Richmond Bunkley
Janelle, an African-American nurse, is posted to the army base in Tuskegee, Alabama, during World War II. Her life there and her involvement with the efforts of the NAACP are the setting for an appealing romance.

The Bondwoman’s Narrative
Hannah Crafts
Just discovered and published in recent years, this is believed to have been the first novel written by an African-American woman. Crafts was a slave who escaped from a North Carolina plantation and wrote this narrative of her experiences in the 1850s.

Martin Duberman
Based on the lives of labor activists Albert Parsons and Lucy Gonzalez, this novel reflects the period of intense social change that followed the Civil War. Leaving Texas because segregation laws condemned their mixed-race marriage, the pair moved to Chicago, where they became involved in the Haymarket Riot of 1886.

Gabriel’s Story
David Anthony Durham
Gabriel is angry over the shabby Kansas farm his stepfather has bought, though it’s a lot for an African-American family to have just after the Civil War. He runs off to be a cowboy, but slowly comes to realize that he has fallen in with violent men in this historical coming-of-age novel.

Walk through Darkness
David Anthony Durham
In parallel plotlines, Durham tells the stories of a fugitive slave and the white man who is hunting him. The two men’s stories are more closely intertwined than they seem. Durham’s honest effort to imagine characters on both sides of the great national divide of slavery makes this novel a moving and intriguing read.

Passing by Samaria
Sharon Ewell Foster
Foster’s inspirational novel follows young Alena as she moves to Chicago in 1919, one tiny figure in the great migration of African-Americans from the old South to the North and West in the decades following the end of slavery.

Sapphire’s Grave
Hilda Gurley-Highgate
This multigenerational tale traces through two centuries the defiant spirit of Sapphire, the first American-born daughter of a woman enslaved in Sierra Leone in 1749. Sapphire’s spirit inspires her descendants not to surrender to the many tragedies they face in their lives.

A Free Man of Color
Barbara Hambly
In antebellum South, the term “free man of color” was really a contradiction. In this historical mystery, Hambly sketches the life and social status of one such man, Ben January, who has returned to New Orleans from Paris in the 1830s.

Middle Passage
Charles Johnson
Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave, hops aboard a ship to escape debt collectors and an unwanted marriage in 1830. But the ship he boards is a slaver, and the unimaginable horrors he witnesses change him forever. A National Book Award winner.

The Known World
Edward P. Jones
Jones writes about a little-known aspect of U.S. history, free blacks who owned slaves in the antebellum South. The death of one such slave owner, Henry Townsend, throws into doubt the fate of dozens of people, slave and free, whose lives depend on him. This powerful, slowly building novel is a rewarding read for fans of historical fiction and cultural commentary.

Miracle at St. Anna
James McBride
In 1944, four soldiers from an African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” unit are lost in Italy’s mountains. The men, all very different, come to depend on one another. But St. Anna’s, a small village church they find, may hold the real key to their survival in this magical tale.

Toni Morrison
This classic and award-winning novel powerfully conveys the horrors of slavery through the story of a family literally haunted by its legacy. The secret surrounding the death of the infant Beloved encapsulates the terrible price African Americans paid in their struggle for freedom.

Devil in a Blue Dress
Walter Mosley
In post-World War II Los Angeles, a young African-American veteran fired from his defense plant job sees little choice except to take a white man’s money to find a missing woman. The first in Mosley’s Easy Rawlins mystery series brings to vivid life this era of segregation.

Franklin’s Crossing
Clay Reynolds
Moses Franklin, former slave, is a frontier scout leading a wagon train of white settlers to Santa Fe. When the train is attacked, Moses and another man ride for help in this richly detailed and grimly realistic novel of the old West.

Cane River
Lalita Tademy
Four generations of African-American women struggle to raise their Louisiana family from slavery to success by the indirect means open to them in this absorbing family saga.

Buffalo Soldiers
Tom Willard
This novel is the first volume in Willard’s well-researched Black Sabre Chronicles about the African-American army regiment nicknamed “the Buffalo Soldiers” by the Cheyenne. This volume traces Sgt. Major Augustus Sharps from the Indian wars of the nineteenth century through the battle of San Juan Hill.

Wings of Honor
Tom Willard
A later volume in the Black Sabre Chronicles, Wings of Honor relates the adventures of Sharps’ grandson with the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. The series provides an excellent overview of segregated civilian and military life, and offers stirring scenes of combat featuring heroes unsung till now.

The Wolf Pit
Marly Youmans
Two stories—that of a white, Confederate prisoner of war, and that of a mute slave woman with a terrible history—are intertwined in this Civil War novel.