The revolutionary and the president
Though they only met in person three times, each encounter between former slave turned outspoken freedom fighter Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln was monumental. Perhaps the biggest surprise in Douglass and Lincoln, the latest work of father-and-son team Paul and Stephen Kendrick, is how much influence Douglass is credited with having on Lincoln, whose major goal in the Civil War was always saving the Union. The authors document specific instances where Lincoln's responsiveness to abolitionist sentiments was altered after reading various Douglass letters and speeches. In turn, Douglass' views about Lincoln were equally affected by things he heard and saw coming from the president. Despite not agreeing on every issue, the two men eventually forged a common ground regarding the necessity for a Northern victory and the ultimate emancipation of the slaves. How they reached that point, as well as other intriguing insights and events that resulted from or were affected by their meetings, is illuminated and outlined in Douglass and Lincoln.
While even casual readers of American history are familiar with Frederick Douglass, very few people have heard of Sarah Johnson. Johnson was one of the many African Americans owned by the father of our country, George Washington, and her story is told in Scott E. Casper's riveting Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon. Johnson spent more than five decades at Mount Vernon, choosing to remain after Washington's will freed her, and was an integral part of its daily operation. Casper gets to the root of some thorny issues, such as the daily routines of those who lived at Mount Vernon, how they were treated by George Washington and others, why an enslaved person would choose to remain after winning freedom, and what roles slaves played in shaping Mount Vernon into a historical shrine. Casper, a professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno, approaches the subject with the care and scrutiny of a scholar, drawing from a number of sources. The result is an intimate and frequently surprising look at both an overlooked individual and one of the nation's foremost historical sites.
An industrious African-American couple living in the North, Lucy and Abijah Prince were far more materially successful than Sarah Johnson or indeed most people in 18th-century America. All that changed, however, when they decided to challenge convention and purchase land. In Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend, Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, host of NPR's "The Book Show," crafts a tale that's got plenty of 21st-century intrigue and surprise. Gerzina depicts the Princes as visionary, highly determined figures who refused to let the taunts, actions or ignorance of bigots stop them. They also had enough faith in their fellow citizens to take their land battle to court in an era when the judicial system was, at best, stacked against blacks. Mr. and Mrs. Prince represents the kind of true-life story that's so amazing it should be much better known, something Gerzina's book may help accomplish.
WHERE HISTORY HAPPENED
Charles E. Cobb Jr.'s On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail may cover the most familiar ground among these books, but that doesn't make it any less important. Cobb, a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the '60s, enhances his coverage of 400 sites with poignant first-person interviews, classic speeches and more than 150 historic photos. He also includes maps and websites offering additional detail and information on the period. On the Road to Freedom should appeal both to those who grew up during this time and those who've come later.
HUNTER AND PREY
The people and places featured in James McBride's Song Yet Sung may be fictional, but they convey with authenticity and power the plight of those enslaved, while revealing the emotional damage done by those charged with maintaining this vicious and dehumanizing practice. McBride, author of the acclaimed memoir The Color of Water, considers the plight of young Liz Spocott, an escaped slave who is shot and captured by slave catcher Denwood Long. Long comes out of retirement to find Spocott; once he does, his life is turned upside down forever. While focusing mainly on the relationship between these two, McBride also ventures into the role of poverty in the formation of attitudes in the pre-war South, the family structure of slaves, African Americans in the abolitionist movement, and the way codes and news were disseminated within songs. McBride's facility with language and knowledge of the period bring his characters to life in vivid, unforgettable fashion. Spike Lee is already at work on the film adaptation of the book; that production should ultimately bring even more readers to this wonderful novel that is equally fascinating, disturbing and magnificent.