These North Carolina-centered books offer a good look at how Black Americans have helped shape the progress of our state throughout its history.
Black North Carolinians have played a crucial role in the fight for justice and equality in our country. Without their contributions, the progress made in the Civil Rights Movement, and throughout the 20th century would not have been possible.
As we continue celebrating Black History Month, we thought it was important to highlight books that specifically celebrate Black history in North Carolina—especially amid GOP-led efforts across the country to ban books that shine a light on systemic racism and lift up the Black experience.
Of course, there are so many to choose from; the five books we offer here provide a broad look at our state, and focus on events and individuals in various parts of North Carolina. This reading list not only highlights the achievements of Black North Carolinians in the fight for civil rights and equality, but also the painful legacy of Jim Crow and the fight for justice.
While events such as the Wilmington Insurrection are stark reminders of the long struggle for justice, the progress and achievements of leaders like Henry Frye and Julius Chambers confirm Martin Luther King Jr.’s belief that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Henry Frye: North Carolina’s First African-American Chief Justice by Howard E. Covington, Jr.
This excellent book on the life and career of former Chief Justice Henry Frye is a must-read for anyone interested in North Carolina political history. The book chronicles Frye’s extraordinary life from his early years in Richmond County, throughout his career, and eventual nomination to the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Born in Ellerbe, Frye was a trailblazer in North Carolina politics and society. He attended North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, and later joined the US Air Force. When Frye returned home to Richmond County in the mid-1950s, he attempted to register to vote but was unable to after failing a literacy test, inspiring him to go into law.
During his time as a student at the University of North Carolina School of Law, Frye was the only Black student and the first to receive a law degree from the school. He would go on to become the first Black resident to be elected to the North Carolina Legislature in the 20th century, the first to serve on the North Carolina Supreme Court, and the first to be Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court.
Covington’s book does an excellent job taking readers on a journey through Frye’s life, how he shaped our state’s future, and helped expand opportunities for Black Americans in all aspects of life.
Henry Frye is available for purchase directly from McFarland Books, a publishing company in West Jefferson, North Carolina.
Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy by David Succhino
David Zucchino’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Wilmington’s Lie, shares the story of one of the most shameful chapters in North Carolina’s history. Despite being a major event in state history, schools have not always done a good job of teaching Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 to students, making Zucchino’s work that much more important.
In 1898, Wilmington was a city with a multiracial government, where Black Americans had been elected to prominent positions of power. However, not all saw this as a positive thing. That year, voters went to the polls to elect candidates to the North Carolina legislature, and white Democrats at the time ran on a platform of reversing progress made in cities like Wilmington.
They used shady tactics, including stuffing ballot boxes, to take back control of the North Carolina legislature, and afterwards, instigated an attack on Wilmington, overthrowing a democratically elected government by force. During this violent assault, dozens of Black men were murdered and the city was terrorized by violent racists, led by Alfred Waddell, a former Confederate soldier and legislator. As a result of the events, the progress made in Wilmington was brought to a halt for decades, and Waddell declared himself as Mayor of Wilmington.
This book is important to North Carolina history, and American history as a whole, as it paints a vivid picture of democracy under attack by violent extremists. The Wilmington Insurrection is the only successful Coup d’etat in American history. Zucchino explains the consequences of the Wilmington Insurrection, reminding us of the struggle for equal rights for Black Americans and the shameful legacy of the Jim Crow era.
Wilmington’s Lie is available for purchase from Grove Atlantic, an independent publisher.
Legacy: Three Centuries of Black History in Charlotte, North Carolina by Pamela Grundy
Charlotte has become one of the fastest growing cities in the country and one of the largest in the Southeast. Pamela Grundy’s book, which published in 2022, tells the story of the Black Charlotteans who helped shape the city to be what it is today while acknowledging the challenges they faced because of white supremacy. Legacy truly takes the reader on a journey through time, from the moment enslaved Africans were brought to The New World against their will to the present day where Black Americans including Harvey Gantt, Anthony Foxx, and the city’s current mayor, Vi Lyles have held prominent positions of leadership.
One of the highlights of this book is its focus on Brooklyn, a predominantly Black community that was established in the early 20th century. Brooklyn was a thriving community that was filled with social activity and commerce.
A quote from local resident Barbara Steele summed up Brooklyn perfectly: “…Everybody knew everybody and we went to each other’s homes and if you were at my house when we got ready to eat my momma sat a place on the table for you to eat, I went to your house to eat your mom would do the same thing… Everybody knew everybody and everybody was somebody and God was for all, right there in Brooklyn.” Today, only a few remnants of Brooklyn remain, including Grace A.M.E. Zion Church, now a historic landmark.
Legacy also highlights the role that Charlotte played in the Civil Rights movement, including sit-ins that took place across the city, demanding an end to segregation. During this time predominantly Black communities, including Brooklyn, were targeted in what the city called “Urban Renewal.” Part of this plan was the building of Interstate 77 and what is now the Brookshire Freeway, which tore through Black neighborhoods during construction.
Legacy is available for purchase from Queen City Nerve.
Just Over the Hill: Black Appalachians in Jackson County, Western North Carolina by Victoria A. Casey McDonald
Victoria A. Casey McDonald, a native of Jackson County, wrote a compelling account of the Black experience in this rural North Carolina community. The book, which originally published in 2012, begins in the decades prior to the Civil War and recounts the lives of her ancestors who lived in Jackson County, including her grandmother, Amanda Thomas, who was born enslaved.
Highlighting a history that often goes overlooked, Casey McDonald brings readers on a journey into the past where they learn about a rural Appalachian community built and led by Black Americans.
Jackson County was the home to a thriving Black community that consisted of former slaves and their descendants. Casey McDonald shows readers how this community established its own businesses, churches, and other social centers. The final section of the book informs readers of how the community structure began to fade toward the middle of the 20th century.
While this book is focused solely on Jackson County, it shows the role that African-Americans played in the development of the county, and gives readers insight into the Black experience in rural North Carolina.
Just Over the Hill is available for purchase at Bookshop.org, a site that directly supports independent bookstores.
Julius Chambers: A Life in the Legal Struggle for Civil Rights by Richard A. Rosen & Joseph Mosnier
Julius Chambers was a North Carolina civil rights activist and attorney who spent his entire life and career advocating for equality. Chambers appeared before the US Supreme Court several times, including in the landmark case Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, where he argued that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools were violating the civil rights of Black students by creating school zones that largely kept schools racially segregated despite the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
Authors Richard Rosen and Joseph Mosnier follow Chambers’ extraordinary life from the small town of Mount Gilead to becoming one of the most prominent civil rights attorneys in American history. Born in Montgomery County, North Carolina in 1936, Chambers was inspired to go into law as a child when a white customer refused to pay his father, who ran a car repair shop, and could not find an attorney to represent him in court.
Chambers received a law degree from the University of North Carolina, where he was the first Black editor-in-chief of the school’s law review and graduated first in his class, and would go on to receive an LLM from Columbia University.
In addition to Swan, Chambers argued several other cases before the US Supreme Court, including Griggs v. Duke Power Co. and Albemarle Paper Company v. Moody, both cases where the Court addressed employment discrimination.
Chambers’ advocacy for Civil Rights made him a target of multiple violent attacks, including a car bomb, and violent attacks on his law practice in Charlotte and his home. This book is perfect to learn about the life of Julius Chambers and the critical role he played in advancing civil rights for Black Americans. Chambers was one of the great legal minds of the 20th century and played an integral role in the fight for equal protection under the law.
Julius Chambers is available for purchase directly from the publisher, the University of North Carolina Press.