Virtual Bookshelf: Black History Month

Marian Anderson at Lincoln Memorial, 1939
Photo caption

Marian Anderson (1897-1993) African American contralto singing at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, Easter Sunday, 1939.

courtesy PBS American Masters

(February 1, 2022)

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

NEH-Funded Projects:

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
Premiering February 8, 2022 on PBS’s American Experience, this NEH-funded documentary 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. Watch on your local PBS station, or stream it online, this February.

Timeline of African American Music
This new 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
Premiering February 15, 2022, 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. Watch the film online or at your local PBS station.

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 Role of Geographic Mobility in the African American Freedom Struggle
In July 2022, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, will present a three-week, residential NEH Summer Institute for K-12 educators, exploring geographic mobility as it relates to the African-American freedom struggle. Twenty-five schoolteachers will attend lectures, fieldtrips, and lab exercises with leading scholars in the field, and create curricular materials to bring back to their home classrooms. Applications to participate are due by March 1.  

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 women 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.

The Search for Founding Black Mothers
This summer, Morgan State University will host a virtual NEH Institute for 6th-12th grade educators on the under-represented contributions of Black women—both individually and collectively— that shaped our nation. Black women are often called the backbone of our democracy, however their legacy and foundational contributions to America remain unexplored or omitted in K-12 textbooks, materials, and classrooms. Participants will work with humanities scholars to examine literature and multiple archives and reckon with curricular and historical erasures of Black women, focusing particularly on the contributions and innovations of: Ona Marie Judge (Staines), Mary Bowser, (Harriet) Araminta Tubman, Mary Ellen Pleasant, Isabella Baumfree (Sojourner Truth), Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Venerable Henriette DeLille, Harriett Jacobs and Louisa Matilda Jacobs, and Dr. Anna Julia Cooper. Applications to participate in the institute close March 1.

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.

Identity and Connections among African, Afro-Caribbean, and African American Communities in the United States
This two-week 2022 NEH Summer Institute at Montgomery College will bring together 25 faculty from across the country to participate in cross-disciplinary research examining the interconnected histories of the Ethiopian, Haitian, Jamaican, and Nigerian Black diaspora communities in the United States. The Institute will explore how the integration of more contemporary African diasporic populations into African American communities broadens and transforms the identity and experience of both in tangible and intangible ways and how these groups contribute to the national cultural fabric of the United States.  Apply online to attend.

NEH Fellowships at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Through the agency’s Fellowship Programs at Independent Research Institutions, NEH supports the scholars-in-residence program at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, enabling scholars to spend time conducting advanced research at one of the nation’s foremost archives of African diasporic history, politics, literature, and culture. NEH grants to both the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the National Humanities Center have, for example, supported fellowships that allowed Jeffrey C. Stewart to conduct research for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke, a definitive biography of the father of the Harlem Renaissance.

“Stony the Road We Trod…”: Exploring Alabama’s Civil Rights Legacy
This summer, the Alabama Humanities Alliance will welcome K-12 teachers to Birmingham for the “Stony the Road We Trod…”, an NEH Summer Institute for in-depth study of Alabama’s role in the civil rights movement. Participants will interact with leading scholars of the field and iconic leaders and foot soldiers of the movement, while developing curricular projects for their own classrooms. Applications for participants are due by March 1.

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.


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. Missouri Humanities’ Black history program partners with several organizations around the state to create and sustain programs dedicated to increasing the understanding of the Black experience in Missouri. As part of an ongoing Shelf Life virtual programming series, Virginia Humanities and Virginia Center of the book will present a virtual discussion with author Charles L. Chavis Jr. about his book The Silent Shore: The Lynching of Matthew Williams and the Politics of Racism in the Free State. Illinois Humanities will host a virtual discussion on Afrofuturism and its connection to Chicago. New York Humanities will hold an online reading and discussion program on Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America. Alabama Humanities Alliance’s Why It Matters podcast series features six episodes on the history of Black suffrage, civil rights, and voter registration movements in Alabama. Check your local humanities council for additional events and resources.

NEH’s education website, EDSITEmentoffers 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 autobiography,  African-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



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