Virtual Bookshelf: Black History Month

Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917–2000), Market Scene, 1966 - Gouache on paper, Chrysler Museum of Art
Photo caption

Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917–2000), Market Scene, 1966 - Gouache on paper, Chrysler Museum of Art

The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

(January 23, 2024)

Celebrate Black History Month with this selection of NEH-funded projects and resources related to African American history and culture:

On September 26, 2023, Ruth J. Simmons, professor, author, and president emerita of Prairie View A&M, Brown University, and Smith College, delivered the 2023 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Her lecture “Facing History to Find a Better Future,” drew on her more than 50 years’ experience as a scholar, pioneering academic administrator, and changemaker in higher education. Stream the lecture here.

NEH-Funded Projects:

Black Ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the Generation that Saved the Soul of the NBA
NEH Public Scholar Theresa Runstedtler tells the story of how a generation of Black pro basketball players, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Spencer Haywood, shaped the NBA.

The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church
In 1838, a group of America’s most prominent Catholic priests sold 272 enslaved people to save their largest mission project, what is now Georgetown University. In her new NEH Public Scholars book, journalist and professor Rachel Lucille Swarns follows one family through nearly two centuries of indentured servitude and enslavement, shedding light on how slavery fueled the growth of the American Catholic Church in the nineteenth century.

The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts
In 1857, a woman escaped enslavement on a North Carolina plantation and fled to a farm in New York. In hiding, she worked on a manuscript that would make her famous long after her death. The novel, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, was first published in 2002 to great acclaim, but the author’s identity remained unknown. Over a decade later, Gregg Hecimovich unraveled the mystery of the author’s name. His NEH Public Scholars book, The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts tells the story of the first Black female novelist and her life as an enslaved woman.

The Sisterhood: How a Network of Black Women Writers Changed American Culture
One Sunday afternoon in February 1977, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, and several other Black women writers met at June Jordan’s Brooklyn apartment to eat gumbo, drink champagne, and talk about their work. Calling themselves “The Sisterhood,” the group—which also came to include Audre Lorde, Paule Marshall, Margo Jefferson, and others—would get together once a month over the next two years, creating a vital space for Black women to discuss literature and liberation. Written with support from an NEH Public Scholars grant,  Courtney Thorsson’s Sisterhood looks at how this network of Black women writers in the 1970s transformed American culture.

Blackbird: How Black Musicians Sang the Beatles into Being—and Sang Back to Them Ever After
Katie Kapurch used an NEH grant to write Blackbird: How Black Musicians Sang the Beatles into Being—and Sang Back to Them Ever After, a cultural history of African-Americans’ musical conversations with the Beatles from the late 1960s to today.

The Harvest: Integrating Mississippi's Schools
In In this NEH grant-funded documentary Pulitzer Prize-winning author Douglas A. Blackmon reflects on how school integration transformed his hometown of Leland, Mississippi. In 1969—15 years after Brown v. Board of Education—the Supreme Court ordered that Mississippi schools fully — and immediately — desegregate. As a result, a group of children, including six-year-old Blackmon, became part of the first class of Black and white children who would attend all 12 grades together in Leland. It tells the extraordinary story of how that first class became possible, then traces the lives of Blackmon and his classmates, teachers and parents from the first day through high school graduation in 1982. Stream the documentary at PBS American Experience.

A Union of Hope: 1869 at the Tenement Museum
The Tenement Museum in New York recently opened a new permanent exhibition, A Union of Hope: 1869, supported by an NEH grant. The exhibition explores the story of Joseph and Rachel Moore, Black New Yorkers who made their home in Lower Manhattan’s tenements in the 1860s and 1870s.

Black Orpheus: Jacob Lawrence and the Mbari Club
On view at the Chrysler Museum of Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Toledo Museum of art throughout 2023, this NEH-funded exhibition explored the connection between African American artist Jacob Lawrence and his contemporaries based in West Africa through the Nigerian publication Black Orpheus. The exhibition featured over 125 objects, including Lawrence’s little-known 1964–65 Nigeria series, works by the artists featured in Black Orpheus, archival images, videos, and letters.

Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad 
Over one million African American men and women served in World War II. Matthew F. Delmont’s recent book Half American, supported by an NEH Public Scholars grant, provides a history of these heroes rarely talked about. Read an excerpt of the book at Smithsonian Magazine, or see Delmont discuss his research at Washington Post Live.

All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley's Sack, a Black Family Keepsake
A 2021 National Book Award winner, Tiya Miles’ All That She Carried traces the poignant human history behind a single artifact—an embroidered mid-1800s cotton sack on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture—through the lives of three generations of Black women. Researched and written with support from an NEH Public Scholars award, the book “honors the creativity and fierce resourcefulness of people who preserved family ties even when official systems refused to do so, and it serves as a visionary illustration of how to reconstruct and recount their stories today,” per its publisher, Penguin Random House. Read an excerpt at NEH’s HUMANITIES magazine.

Marian Anderson: The Whole World in Her Hands
This NEH-funded documentary from PBS’s American Experience explores the life, career, art, and legacy of the famous singer who became an icon for the civil rights movement. The documentary draws on Anderson’s key performances and archival interviews to show how her quiet genius and breathtaking voice set the stage for Black performers in classical music.

Timeline of African American Music
This interactive digital resource from Carnegie Hall lets students, educators, researchers, and music lovers explore the rich history, evolution, and influence of African American music genres dating back more than 400 years, from the earliest folk traditions to present-day popular music. Made possible with support from NEH grants, the timeline is both a historical study and a celebration of living musical traditions. The timeline is organized into three content threads—Sacred Traditions, Secular Traditions, and Jazz Secular Traditions—and offers information on more than 50 musical genres with ties to African American traditions from spirituals and ragtime to jazz and hip-hop, alongside in-depth studies of pioneering musicians who created some of America’s most timeless artistic expressions.

The American Diplomat
The NEH-funded PBS American Experience documentary The American Diplomat explores the lives and legacies of three African American ambassadors—Edward Dudley, Terence Todman and Carl Rowan—who pushed past historical and institutional racial barriers to reach high-ranking appointments in the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. At the height of the civil rights movement in the United States, the three men were asked to represent the best of American ideals abroad while facing discrimination at home. Through rare archival footage, in-depth oral histories, and interviews with family members, colleagues and diplomats, the film paints a portrait of three men who left a lasting impact on the content and character of the Foreign Service and changed American diplomacy forever. Stream online at PBS.

Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America
Written by Marcia Chatelain with support from an NEH Fellowship, Franchise investigates the complex interrelationship between Black communities and America’s largest, most popular fast food chain. Taking us from the first McDonald’s drive-in in San Bernardino to the franchise on Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri, in the summer of 2014, Chatelain shows how fast food is a source of both power—economic and political—and despair for African Americans. Franchise was awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in History. Read an interview with Marcia Chatelain about her award-winning book at NEH’s HUMANITIES magazine.

African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song
One of the great American art forms, African American poetry encompasses many kinds of verse: formal, experimental, vernacular, lyric, and protest. Edited by Kevin Young, this Library of America anthology gathers material from 250 Black poets from the colonial period to the present. The volume, published in 2020, is the centerpiece of Lift Every Voice, a national public humanities initiative made possible with NEH support. Read an interview with poet Kevin Young about the project at NEH’s HUMANITIES magazine.

Driving While Black: Race, Space, and Mobility in America
Discover how the advent of the automobile brought new mobility and freedom for African Americans but also exposed them to discrimination and deadly violence, and how that history resonates today. Chronicling the riveting history and personal experiences—at once liberating and challenging, harrowing and inspiring, deeply revealing and profoundly transforming—of African Americans on the road from the advent of the automobile through the seismic changes of the 1960s and beyond—the NEH-funded documentary Driving While Black explores the deep background of a recent phrase rooted in realities that have been an indelible part of the African-American experience for hundreds of years – told in large part through the stories of the men, women and children who lived through it. Available for streaming on the PBS website.

Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America
Candacy Taylor’s NEH Public Scholar book, Overground Railroad, takes on the theme of Black travel and explores the historical role and residual impact of the Green Book, a travel guide for Black motorists published from 1936 to 1966.

The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr.
Since 1986 NEH has funded the collection, editing, and publication of the definitive edition of the speeches, sermons, correspondence, public statements, published writings, and unpublished manuscripts of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Under the direction of Stanford University historian Clayborne Carson, the project has to date published seven volumes of King’s papers, documenting King’s family roots, rise to prominence, and influence as a national spokesperson for civil rights.

The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. At the time of his murder, King was a polarizing figure—scorned by many white Americans, worshipped by some African Americans and liberal whites, and deemed irrelevant by many black youth. NEH Public Scholar Jason C. Sokol traces the diverse responses, both in America and throughout the world, to King’s death, presenting a deeply moving account of how Americans grappled with King’s death and legacy in the days, weeks, and months after his assassination.

Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart
This Peabody Award-winning documentary explores the inner life and works of the activist, playwright, and author of A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry. The film draws from Hansberry’s personal papers and archives, including home movies and rare photos, and examines the influences that shaped her childhood, future art, and activism. The NEH-funded film premiered on PBS’s American Masters in 2018. Read about the film at NEH’s HUMANITIES magazine.

Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America
W. Caleb McDaniel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning NEH Public Scholars book Sweet Taste of Liberty tells the epic tale of Henrietta Wood, a Black woman who survived kidnapping and re-enslavement and successfully sued her captor for damages, receiving the largest settlement ever awarded by an American court in restitution for slavery.

This award-winning 2021 documentary explores the first nationally broadcast all-Black variety show on public television, Ellis Haizlip’s SOUL! Premiering in 1968, the pioneering series ran for five years, cementing itself as not only a vehicle to celebrate African-American artistry, community, and culture, but also as a platform for political expression and a powerful force in the fight for social justice. The NEH-funded Mr. SOUL! portrays in exquisite detail a revolutionary time in American culture and entertainment through vibrant archival footage and interviews with numerous Black luminaries who appeared on SOUL! or were impacted by it.

Dunbar Project
An NEH grant is supporting a three-year place-based learning initiative and curriculum development project at the University of Dayton focusing on the life, works, and legacy of poet, novelist, short-story writer, and Dayton native Paul Laurence Dunbar. The project will develop linked courses around Dunbar’s work, introduce students and faculty to digital humanities tools and investigative methods, and facilitate cross-disciplinary teaching and broaden engagement with Dunbar-related cultural materials.

Colored Conventions Project
From 1830 until well after the Civil War, African Americans gathered across the United States and Canada to participate in political meetings held at the state and national level. A cornerstone of Black organizing in the nineteenth century, these “colored conventions” brought Black men and women together in a decades-long campaign for civil and human rights. The NEH-funded Colored Conventions Project at the University of Delaware offers interactive, digital exhibits of historical images and documents to provide insight into these gatherings and expand our understanding of early Black organizing.

Freedom Riders
Hear the stories of the more than 400 black and white Americans who risked violent attacks and imprisonment for traveling together on buses through the segregated South as part of the 1961 Freedom Rides. This powerful NEH-supported 2011 documentary by Stanley Nelson tells the harrowing and ultimately inspirational story of six months that changed America forever. Available streaming online at PBS’s American Experience.

Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home
NEH Public Scholar Richard J. Bell recounts the gripping, true story of five boys who were kidnapped in Philadelphia in 1825 and smuggled into slavery in the Deep South—and their daring attempt to escape and bring their captors to justice. Their ordeal—an odyssey that takes them from the Philadelphia waterfront to the marshes of Mississippi and then onward still—shines a glaring spotlight on the Reverse Underground Railroad, a black market network of human traffickers and slave traders who stole away thousands of legally free African Americans from their families in order to fuel slavery’s rapid expansion in the decades before the Civil War.

The Jazz Ambassadors
The Cold War and civil rights collide in this remarkable story of music, diplomacy, and race. Beginning in 1955, when America asked its greatest jazz artists to travel the world as cultural ambassadors, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, and their racially diverse band members faced a painful dilemma: How could they represent a country that still practiced Jim Crow segregation? This NEH-funded documentary premiered on PBS in 2018. Check local listings for re-broadcasts, and find related classroom resources for students in grades 6-12 at PBS’s Learning Media site.

Freedmen and Southern Society Project
Long-term NEH funding to the Freedmen and Southern Society project at the University of Maryland, is supporting research and editorial work on Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867, a nine-volume documentary history of the transition from slavery to freedom in the U.S. South. The project’s editors pored over millions of documents in the National Archives, selecting some 50,000 to transcribe, organize, and annotate to illustrate how Black people traversed the bloody ground from slavery to freedom between the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 and the beginning of Radical Reconstruction in 1867.

Teenie Harris Archive
Charles "Teenie" Harris (1908–1998) photographed Pittsburgh's African American community from around 1935 to 1975. His archive of nearly 80,000 images is one of the most detailed and intimate records of the black urban experience known today. NEH grants have funded preservation of his photographs, the first major retrospective exhibition and web resource celebrating Teenie Harris’s work and legacy, and a set of digital tools that uses the collection at the Carnegie Museum of Art as a test case for the development of open-source software to facilitate the identification and annotation of digitized images.

In Pursuit of Freedom
This public history project brings to life the stories of Brooklyn’s abolitionist and anti-slavery community through walking tours, interactive games, and online lesson plans. The NEH-funded resource was produced through a partnership with the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Weeksville Heritage Center, and the Irondale Ensemble Project.

The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross
Scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. recounts the full trajectory of African-American history in his groundbreaking six-part series that takes viewers across five hundred years and two continents to shed new light on the experience of being an African American. The NEH-funded six-hour series and accompanying educational materials are available through PBS.

Call My Name: Documenting the Black Experience in an American University
NEH grants to Clemson University’s Call My Name project have supported both a two-day digitization event to collect materials regarding the under-documented contributions and stories of African Americans at Clemson University and the surrounding community, as well as the creation of a traveling exhibition examining the history of the African Americans who worked on the land that became Clemson University. The project records, represents, and solicits the experiences of six generations of African Americans in a microcosm of American history and racial politics in Clemson, South Carolina. Hear project director Rhondda Robinson Thomas speak about plans for the “Call My Name” traveling exhibition.

Move on Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power
Curtis Mayfield. The Chi-Lites. Chaka Khan. Chicago’s place in the history of soul music is rock solid. But for Chicagoans, soul music in its heyday from the 1960s to the 1980s was more than just a series of hits: it was a marker and a source of black empowerment. In Move On Up, NEH Public Scholar Aaron Cohen tells the remarkable story of the explosion of soul music in Chicago.

Tell Them We Are Rising
A haven for Black intellectuals, artists, and revolutionaries—and a path of promise toward the American dream—Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have educated the architects of freedom movements and cultivated leaders in every field while remaining unapologetically Black for more than 150 years. Stanley Nelson’s NEH-funded documentary examines the history of America’s HBCUs and their role as a key driver of Black social, political, and economic progress. Classroom resources for high school students related to the film are available at PBS’s LearningMedia.

African American Families Database
Map the journey of African American families before and after the Civil War with this online database of genealogical records from Albemarle County, Virginia. This digital humanities project from Central Virginia History Researchers is a partnership among local historians, anthropologists, genealogists, and community residents designed to connect African American families to their antebellum roots and trace patterns of community formations in the postbellum period.

W.E.B. DuBois’s prose poem “Credo” proclaimed his philosophy of racial equality. Read the personal correspondence and writings of this intellectual leader and founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in this online archive of DuBois’s papers, created through an NEH grant to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Game of Privilege: An African American History of Golf
Written with support from an NEH Summer Stipend, Lane Demas’s Game of Privilege is a cultural history of race and golf placed within the broader context of American history since the late nineteenth century. The book tracks the game’s rise alongside events such as the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, and the postwar civil rights movement.

Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me
This NEH-supported film is the first major documentary to examine the performer’s vast career and his journey for identity through the shifting tides of civil rights and racial progress during twentieth-century America. Through interviews, never-before-seen photographs, and footage of Davis’s performances in television, film, and concert, the documentary explores the life and art of a uniquely gifted entertainer whose trajectory paralleled the major flashpoints of American society, from the Depression through the 1980s. Available at PBS’s American Masters.

Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps  
The Civil War was just days old when the first enslaved men, women, and children began fleeing their plantations to seek refuge inside the lines of the Union army as it moved deep into the heart of the Confederacy. In the years that followed, hundreds of thousands more followed in a mass exodus from slavery that would destroy the system once and for all. Drawing on an extraordinary survey of slave refugee camps throughout the country, Embattled Freedom reveals as never before the everyday experiences of these refugees from slavery as they made their way through the vast landscape of army-supervised camps that emerged during the war. Author Amy Murrell Taylor’s research for the book was supported by an NEH Fellowship.

Music in the American South
Much of the music from the American South has been influenced by African Americans. From B.B. King in Mississippi to Lil Nas X in Georgia, explore some recent NEH-supported projects from Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and Arkansas focusing on music and its connections to the humanities.   

White House Soul of the Nation Gospel Concert
Last April NEH participated in The White House Soul of the Nation Gospel Concert with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden. Produced through a partnership between the White House, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and TV One, the celebration was hosted by Grammy-nominated Juan Winans and featured historical contexts provided by NEH grant-supported humanities scholars. The event featured the NEH-supported Sounding Spirit project at Emory University, a digital library of historical sacred vernacular songbooks published in the southern United States between 1850 and 1925.

The Late Valerie Boyd Was a Writer, an Editor, and a Friend of the Humanities
Valerie Boyd’s biography Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston is the first biography of Zora Neale Hurston in 25 years. 

Jump at the Sun
Discover the history of Eatonville, Florida, in this series in which scholars look at the first incorporated Black municipality in the country and the hometown of Zora Neale Hurston. 

State Humanities Councils:
Many of NEH’s local partners throughout the country, the state and jurisdictional humanities councils, will host public programs and workshops in celebration of Black History Month. Check your local humanities council for additional events and resources.

Sponsored by California Humanities, Afróntalo, an exhibition at CSU San Bernardino through June, explores the depth and breadth of Afro-Latin histories, cultures, and identities in the U.S. and Latin America. . Colorado Humanities is hosting multiple events in February focusing on Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. around the state. The Lincoln School Story, a new documentary sponsored by Ohio Humanities will premiere in February. A list of airing dates can be found here. From February 5-29, Texans can visit Behold the People: R. C. Hickman’s Photographs of Black Dallas, 1949–1961, an exhibition sponsored by Humanities Texas at the Kerr Regional History Center.

NEH’s education website, EDSITEment, offers a curated selection of lesson plans, close readings, and classroom resources geared toward educators and families on a variety of topics. EDSITEment’s African American History and Culture in the United States teacher’s guide brings together curriculum and lesson plans, articles, and primary sources on significant events and individuals in African-American history. The site offers lesson plans for high school students on the competing voices of the civil rights movement, Frederick Douglass’s 1845 autobiographyAfrican-American soldiers after World War I, and the music of African American history. For younger students, lesson plans on African American communities in the North, and the Green Book suggest readings and discussion questions for middle school classrooms.

Blog Posts:
Preserving the American Black Journal
Celebrating Black History Month Part I: Slavery and Abolition
Celebrating Black History Month Part II: Reconstruction
Celebrating Black History Month Part III: Documenting the Civil Rights Era—From Famous Figures to Everyday Life
Chronicling America Dispatches: “Published for the elevation of our race”: Ten Historical African American South Carolina Newspapers in Chronicling America
Spreading the Word on the History of African American Religion
Double Victory in Black and White: What Digitized Historical Newspapers Reveal about the African American Experience of WWII
Documenting Lost African-American Newspapers
Cecil E. Newman: Newspaper Publisher and Advocate for Minnesota’s Black Community
Silent No More: Lifting the Veil on Women and People of Color in Silent and Short Film
Humanities Researchers Remember the Slave Trade and its Abolition

How Black Suffragists Fought for the Right to Vote and a Modicum of Respect
Black Poetry Anthologized
Black on Black: Louis Draper Made His Subjects Visible
South to Freedom
In the Land of Snow and Fargo, a Legacy of Black Writing Emerges
A Voyage to Freedom
Atlanta, School Teachers, and the History of Race Relations
Celebrating Freedom
St. Louis’s First Black Detective Always Cracked the Case
The Right to Love
Black Mozart
From American Playhouse to 12 Years a Slave
Marcia Chatelain on Fast Food and Black Capitalism
The 1921 Tulsa Massacre
Story Cloths
Historian of the Negro Leagues
William Lanson Shaped New Haven
Black Swan Rising
“The Sweat and Blood of Fannie Lou Hamer”
The People and Places of Black Bottom, Detroit
What Zora Went Looking For
The Art of Alma Thomas Comes Full Circle at the Phillips
August Wilson's Blues Poetry
Invisible Man at Seventy
Artists Reinterpret the Great Migration
Jacob Lawrence in Nigeria
The Sonnet Man Brings Hip-Hop to Shakespeare
The Value of Difference
A Voice for Freedom