35 of the Most Important Books about Slavery

Slavery is a sensitive and difficult topic to discuss, but it's an important one. Slavery has been around for thousands of years and is still present in some parts of the world today.

In the United States, slavery was abolished with the passage of the thirteenth amendment in 1865, but it left a lasting impact on our country and its people. This list highlights 35 books about slavery in the United States and around the world.

It's not meant to be exhaustive, but rather provides a starting point for further exploration.

We hope you'll read these books and learn more about this important chapter in history.

Books about Slavery

1. Twelve Years a Slave

Twelve Years a Slave

Written by: Solomon Northup

Published: 2013

Pages: 348

Solomon Northup tells the story of his abduction into slavery and his subsequent years in bondage. Northup was born free in New York state but was tricked and kidnapped while working in Washington D.C.

He was sold into slavery and spent the next dozen years toiling on plantations in Louisiana. Despite the horrible conditions he faced, Northup never lost hope that he would be reunited with his family one day.

His story is an inspirational tale of perseverance against all odds in a world that does everything to stop you. This book was initially published in 1853.

2. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route

Lose Your Mother

Written by: Saidiya Hartman

Published: 2007

Pages: 288

In Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, author and historian Saidiya Hartman retraces the steps of her ancestors who were enslaved and shipped from West Africa to the Americas. Using a blend of personal narrative and historical research, Hartman pieces together the slavery experience from the perspective of both the enslaved Africans and their captors.

Hartman's journey takes her from Ghana to Jamaica to Haiti and finally to New York City, where she tries to figure out who she is, being that she's not from Ghana, but also doesn't feel as if she fits in the U.S.A. Along the way, she confronts brutal truths about America's past - and present - while also celebrating the strength and resilience of her African ancestors.

Lose Your Mother is an important book that links personal storytelling with rigorous historical information.

3. My Bondage and My Freedom

My Bondage and My Freedom

Written by: Frederick Douglass, John David Smith

Published: 2008

Pages: 472

Frederick Douglass is one of the most influential African Americans in history. In his autobiography, he documents his life as an enslaved person and his eventual escape to freedom. The book has been praised for its powerful writing and unflinching honesty.

It is an essential read for anyone interested in American history or the Civil Rights movement before it became popular.

John David Smith's new edition includes extensive annotations that provide historical context and explanatory notes. It is a valuable resource for students, scholars, and general readers alike. It was initially published in 1855.

4. How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

How the Word Is Passed

Written by: Clint Smith

Published: 2021

Pages: 336

This book is a powerful outcry against racism in America. The title refers to how racist ideas and attitudes are passed down from generation to generation, sometimes in subtle and unintentional ways.

By traveling to 9 locations in the U.S.A., he speaks to people of all races, genders, and class levels to figure out the truth. Through his personal stories and insightful analysis of history, Smith challenges readers to confront racism head-on and work to break the cycle.

This is an essential book for readers who want to read about the past, and the present, to see how the memories of slavery are distorted by history.

5. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

Battle Cry of Freedom

Written by: James M. McPherson

Published: 1988

Pages: 904

The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era is a book by James McPherson that tells the story of the Civil War era through the events leading up to the war and during the war. This novel provides readers with an in-depth look at how slavery, politics, and economic interests led to one of the deadliest conflicts in American history.

Even though this book comes in at just under 1,000 pages, it is so intriguing that you'll think you won't notice that. Being loaded with interviews and is exceptionally well-documented, this book is still seen as one of the most important works on the Civil War era.

6. An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom

An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom

Written by: Marcus Rediker

Published: 2012

Pages: 304

This is history shown from the people's perspective on the ships being transported. This starts at the captain and goes down to the enslaved people. It also goes into how it was indeed a slave business as these people were only used to enrich their white owners. One example is that the enslaved people realized this and would try to commit suicide.

It is a painful book to read since you have to deal with the reality of how people were treated. The captains were horrible people who denigrated the other sailors, who then, in turn, denigrated the enslaved people. And by denigration, we mean thumb screws, whips, and pretty much anything else possible.

7. The Presidents' War: Six American Presidents and the Civil War That Divided Them

The Presidents' War

Written by: Chris DeRose

Published: 2014

Pages: 392

In 1861, the United States was plunged into a Civil War that would last for four bloody years. During that time, six American presidents would fight amongst each other - and each would have to grapple with the devastating conflict in their way.

Historian Jon Meacham tells how Abraham Lincoln, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and James A. Garfield all faced the greatest challenge of their careers.

Through meticulous research and engaging prose, Meacham brings to life one of the most pivotal periods in American history. Readers will gain a new understanding of how the Civil War shaped our nation.

8. They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South

They Were Her Property

Written by: Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers

Published: 2019

Pages: 320

White women enslavers played a significant role in the slave economy in the American South. Since women usually inherited enslaved people instead of land when relatives died, these women were instrumental in managing and profiting from their slaves.

While some historians have argued that these women were simply riding on the coattails of their husbands or fathers, recent scholarship has demonstrated that white women enslavers were active participants in the institution of slavery.

Through shrewd business practices and ruthless exploitation, these women helped build and maintain the slave system in America.

9. A. Lincoln

A. Lincoln

Written by: Ronald C. White Jr.

Published: 2009

Pages: 816

Most people think of President Lincoln as "The Great Emancipator." However, that isn't quite the reality. Even though he ended slavery, he still believed that African Americans were not as evolved as white people. He didn't want intermarriage; he thought they couldn't be as intelligent as white and held many other horrid beliefs.

Drawing on thousands of letters and documents that have never been published before, White offers a fresh look at Lincoln's complex character and provides new insights into his beliefs and decision-making processes throughout his life.

If you want to know about Lincoln’s life, for better or for worse, this is a biography you will want to read.

10. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing

Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome

Written by: Joy a Degruy

Published: 2005

Pages: 235 

We are told that we are a country built on the idea of enduring and overcoming any obstacle. However, how does that affect people who were brought here as enslaved people and are still blamed for not achieving this absurd goal? What if there were people who have walked this path before us and can offer guidance and support?

Joy a Degruy provides a comprehensive look at the history of trauma in America, from slavery to today. Drawing on historical research and personal accounts, Degruy sheds light on how African Americans have used resilience and creativity to heal from generations of violence and racism.

This book is an essential read for anyone who wants to understand the roots of African American American trauma and how to help survive it.

11. The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross

The African Americans

Written by: Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Published: 2013

Pages: 320

If you want to learn about the African American experience, there is no better place to start than Pulitzer Prize-winning Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s book. Covering everything from the arrival of the first enslaved people in America to the election of Barack Obama, this comprehensive volume provides a detailed overview of black history and culture.

Gates brings a wealth of knowledge and insight to his subject, making this an essential read for anyone interested in this critical part of our nation's history. Gates is one of America's foremost authorities on black history, and his passion for the subject shines through here.

This is a companion book to the six-part PBS series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.

12. Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain

Staying Power

Written by: Peter Fryer

Published: 1984

Pages: 656

The history of black people in Britain is long and complicated, full of highs and lows. This book provides an in-depth look at this often-overlooked aspect of British history. Fryer's work is essential reading for anyone interested in the topic and provides a wealth of information on slavery to the civil rights movement.

Drawing on a variety of sources, Fryer paints a detailed picture of the experiences of black Britons throughout the centuries.

One particularly interesting chapter looks at how the British government has used race to control and manipulate its colonies. This was initially published in 1984.

13. The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States

The Broken Heart of America

Written by: Walter Johnson

Published: 2020

Pages: 528

As a country, the United States likes to believe that it is better than other countries. It has a history of violence, racism, and discrimination that is hard to forget. Many people try to ignore this part of the country's history, but it still exists.

One place where this is particularly evident is in St. Louis, Missouri. St. Louis has been at the center of some of the worst moments in American history. The Civil War is just one of the most prominent examples.

However, there are also positive movements for equality and resistance in this city that prove that one should never accept these conditions.

14. The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln and the Struggle for American Freedom

The Zealot and the Emancipator

Written by: H. W. Brands

Published: 2020

Pages: 448

In 1859, America was on the brink of the Civil War. Tensions between slave-holding and non-slave-holding states were at an all-time high, and violence seemed inevitable.

But during this turmoil, two men emerged as leaders with very different visions for the future of America: John Brown, the radical abolitionist who advocated for violent resistance against slavery, and Abraham Lincoln, the moderate Republican who championed equality and unity.

While everyone knows that Lincoln was assassinated, most don't realize that John Brown was hanged and became a martyr of sorts for abolitionists.

Though they would never meet or even know of each other's existence, these two men would come to personify the opposing sides in America's most significant conflict.

15. Tales from the Haunted South

Tales from the Haunted South

Written by: Tiya Miles

Published: 2015

Pages: 176

Have you ever heard of the haunted ghost tours that are incredibly popular in the South? These are tales of ghosts, voodoo, and other creatures meant to scare you. People seem to love these tours and find them thrilling and exciting.

However, you should instead think of the dark history of the American South, with its tales of slavery and civil rights struggles. Sadly, the depictions of the cultures of so many people stolen from Africa are played up as a caricature. This makes it easier to denigrate and lets people continue to think that African Americans are somehow less civilized than white culture.

It is a horrible lie that continues the narrative from the Civil War and excuses the behavior of racists in today’s world.

16. The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America's Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War

The War Before the War

Written by: Andrew Delbanco

Published: 2018

Pages: 464

Many of us think we know what led up to the Civil War, but there is so much more, and Andrew Delbanco does a great job of exposing it. This includes how few enslaved people escaped, how white people could be taken into slavery if they helped or housed them, and more.

Instead of just taking one side, he writes from the viewpoints of ex-slaves, religious officials, government officials, and even enslaved people loyal to the South.

Once you read about Article 4 of the Constitution and then The Fugitive Slave Act, you will never think about the history of the U.S.A. in the same way.

17. Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire

Island on Fire

Written by: Tom Zoellner

Published: 2020

Pages: 376

Most people don't think of Jamaica as a land with people forced to be enslaved or die. This book documents a revolt and war that lasted for five weeks in 1831 between the local people and the British government to gain their freedom.

Since there were many sugar plantations, and England wanted sugar to be imported, the people of Jamaica were forced to work the fields. However, they decided that they no longer wanted to be enslaved and took matters into their own hands by burning the crops.

This book shows how each event happened and why the British finally abolished slavery just two years later, partly because of it. This compares to the U.S.A. took decades to do the same.

18. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America

An Imperfect God

Written by: Henry Wiencek

Published: 2003

Pages: 404

George Washington, the "Father of Our Country," was an enslaver. This is a simple, irrefutable fact. And it's one that often overshadows Washington's many other accomplishments. In his book, historian Henry Wiencek seeks to shed light on this complex figure and explore his ownership of enslaved people says about America.

Wiencek offers a detailed portrait of Washington's life and times, showing how the contradictions at the heart of Washington's character shaped our nation from its earliest days. Though Washington was an enslaver himself, he eventually came to see the evil of slavery and worked to end it.

This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to know the truth about Washington and the reality of slavery during his time.

19. Thirty Years a Slave from Bondage to Freedom: The Institution of Slavery as Seen on the Plantation and in the Home of the Planter: Autobiography of Louis Hughes

Thirty Years a Slave from Bondage to Freedom

Written by: Louis Hughes

Published: 2002

Pages: 160

This autobiography is compelling and will let you see reality through Hughes' eyes in a way other books don't. He recounts his time as a child working on a farm, then being sold and treated afterward.

Being a slave, his master and the mistress treated him as chattel, and he was often whipped so harshly that he could barely survive. He tried numerous times to escape but was caught, and it wasn't until the end of the Civil War that he and his family could become free.

It is an incredible recounting of strength, perseverance, and the enduring drive for freedom, no matter the odds against him. It was originally released in 1969.

20. Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom

Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom

Written by: Catherine Clinton

Published: 2005

Pages: 304

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland in 1820. She escaped to freedom in 1849 and then helped more than hundreds of other enslaved people escape through the Underground Railroad. In 1850, she moved to Canada with her family.

Five years later, she returned to the United States to help enslaved people escape from plantations in South Carolina. Tubman served as a Union Army nurse and spy during the Civil War.

After the war ended, she continued her work for social justice by helping African Americans find new homes and jobs. With no regard for her safety, she changed history.

In 1913, Tubman was awarded the Medal of Honor for her courageous work on behalf of enslaved people and freed people.

21. The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story

The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story

Written by: Nikole Hannah-Jones with The New York Times

Published: 2021

Pages: 624

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the history of slavery in the United States. This has been spurred in part by the 1619 Project. It is an initiative from The New York Times that aims to re-examine American history through the lens of slavery.

One of the project's lead contributors, Nikole Hannah-Jones, has written a book expanding on her original work. She argues that America's accurate founding date is not 1776, but 1619 when the first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia.

This new viewpoint challenges long-held beliefs about America's origins. It promises to provoke much-needed conversation about the reality that the U.S. was born on slavery and not the supposed freedom for all.

22. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory

Race and Reunion

Written by: David W. Blight

Published: 2002

Pages: 528

We are told that the Civil War ended slavery and therefore allowed equality and justice to be achieved in the U.S.A. delving into the agreements between the North and the South, we see a very different reality.

Since reconciliation was the main movement at that time, the treatment of African Americans was, at best, a secondary concern. The South specifically used lies and deceit to promote the "Lost Cause" belief that they were victims of Northern aggression.

When you read this book, you'll understand why the Republicans in the South continue to fight against the truth and keep African Americans from having true freedom and equality today.

23. Black Labor, White Wealth: The Search for Power and Economic Justice

Black Labor, White Wealth

Written by: Claude Anderson

Published: 1994 (1941)

Pages: 250

Too many people in today’s world still think that wealth disparities between races result from laziness or some other personal flaw among people of color. Simply stated, they are wrong. This book challenges the myths about race and poverty in America.

The book's authors argue that structural racism is the root cause of economic inequality in this country. Racism has created a system that benefits white people at the expense of everyone else, including black Americans. If we want to achieve genuine economic justice, we need to address the underlying causes of racism in our society.

The book makes a robust case for reform. It provides a much-needed look at the intersection of race and economics and our society’s continuing fight against supporting people of color.

24. How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America

How the South Won the Civil War

Written by: Heather Cox Richardson

Published: 2020

Pages: 272

Heather Cox Richardson argues that the real winners of the conflict were not the North but was southern enslavers. She contends that they could keep their grip on power by playing on racial divisions and ensuring that Reconstruction failed.

She examines how the South and the West took native people's land and forced them into labor practices that ignored the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Cowboys often did this, and it has been given a rustic and absurd narrative that everyone was free. She follows that up with how republicans continue to use that lie to justify their abuse of people of color today.

Her research and writing are impeccable, making this an authoritative work on the subject.

25. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Written by: Frederick Douglas

Published: 2015

Pages: 176

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 on a Maryland plantation. He spent his childhood in bondage until he finally escaped to freedom in 1838. During his time as an enslaved person, Douglass witnessed firsthand the brutality and injustice of the system.

Initially published in 1845, this book quickly thrust Douglass into the national spotlight as one of America's leading abolitionists.

Douglass continued to fight for justice and equality throughout his life, becoming one of the most prominent African American figures of his time. His legacy continues to inspire people worldwide who are fighting for freedom from racism and enslavement.

26. The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America

The Other Slavery

Written by: Andrés Reséndez

Published: 2016

Pages: 448

This insightful book shines a light on one of the most overlooked chapters of American history—the enslavement of Native Americans.

In riveting detail, he explores the dynamics of this hidden slave trade, which robbed Indians of their land, freedom, and lives. Drawing on exhaustive research, Reséndez paints a gripping portrait of the brutal realities faced by millions of Indians who were forcibly assimilated into colonial society.

A powerful and eye-opening work, "The Other Slavery" is a must-read for anyone interested in Native American history.

27. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

Written by: Olaudah Equiano

Published: 2006

Pages: 256

The book was first published in 1789 and told the story of Equiano's life, from his childhood in Africa, where he was sold to other Africans, and then to his years spent as an enslaved person in the Caribbean and America.

He was fortunate to have been treated well compared to many others from his account. The book is significant not only for its account of slavery and the slave trade but also for its insights into 18th-century life, culture, and politics.

Despite being published over two hundred years ago, The Interesting narrative remains an essential read for anyone interested in understanding the history of slavery and race relations.

28. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

The Half Has Never Been Told

Written by: Edward E. Baptist

Published: 2014

Pages: 498

Everyone looks at how the South used slavery to increase production using free labor. Baptist agrees but then expands it to most of the free world because it benefited almost every country based on capitalism and subjugation of workers.

This book does an amazing job of tying together so many threads, ranging from economic, historical, Constitutional, and the human side (especially when you read the stories told by the enslaved people); it is impressive.

Amazingly, if not for the South's consistent need for more enslaved people and desires to expand, the Civil War probably wouldn't have happened, and slavery may still be with us today. If you are interested in seeing a very different viewpoint of slavery and U.S.U.S. history, you will want to pick up this book.

29. Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol

Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol

Written by: Nell Irvin Painter

Published: 1996

Pages: 370

In 1851, Sojourner Truth gave a now-famous speech at Akron's Ohio Women's Rights Convention. In it, she said: "And ain't I a woman?" Her words would become a rallying cry for generations of women fighting for their rights.

Nell Irvin Painter’s biography tells the story of this remarkable woman who fought not only for the rights of African Americans but also for those of women and working people. Drawing on unpublished letters and documents, Painter paints a portrait of a complex and contradictory figure whose life transcended the boundaries of race and gender.

Sojourner Truth was truly ahead of her time - an icon who deserves to be seen and heard.

30. The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry

The American Slave Coast

Written by: Ned Sublette and Constance Sublette

Published: 2015

Pages: 752

The American Slave Coast is a history of the slave breeding industry in the United States. The author documents how colonists in North America began buying and selling enslaved Africans for profit.

This practice quickly spread throughout the colonies, and by the early 1800s, the American slave-breeding industry was booming. Enslaved Africans were treated as nothing more than breeding stock, and their families were torn apart at will.

The brutality of this system is difficult to comprehend, but Sublette's book provides a groundbreaking account of how it operated and its lasting impact on American society.

31. Up from Slavery

Up from Slavery

Written by: Booker T. Washington,

Published: 1986

Pages: 332

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Booker T. Washington was one of the most influential voices in the United States when it came to discussing race relations and African American advancement.

In his autobiography, Washington recounts his own life story, from being born into slavery to becoming a renowned educator and leader. This book is an essential read for anyone interested in understanding American history and the African American experience directly from someone who was able to overcome his circumstances.

Some people think that his view of overcoming the difficulties of slavery and economic issues of African Americans is too simplistic, but see it through his eyes and decide for yourself. Initially published in 1901, it has since been updated.

32. Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America

Sweet Taste of Liberty

Written by: W. Caleb McDaniel

Published: 2019

Pages: 352

Henrietta Wood was born into slavery but then freed in 1858. However, she was abducted by sheriff Zebulon Ward and sold back into slavery. Living through the Civil War, she vowed never to forget or forgive who did this to her.

When she became free again, in 1869, she sued and won $2,500 against Ward. It was the most money awarded to a formerly enslaved person at that time. During this time, she became a powerful businessperson and fought for the civil rights of all.

This is a beautiful story of someone who had nothing, gained freedom, lost it, and then overcame the racism and bigotry of her times to change history.

33. Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South

Masterless Men

Written by: Keri Leigh Merritt

Published: 2017

Pages: 370

This is unlike any other book in this list because it focuses on how slavery affected poor white laborers and workers. Because of the slave trade being so inexpensive, especially when you consider that enslaved people were often bred and therefore free labor, white workers became increasingly jobless.

So, even though they didn't have to deal with the torture that enslaved Black people went through, they were stuck in a system that held them down. Interestingly, the men and women of this group helped push for Civil War, knowing that ending slavery was their only way out of poverty.

It is a very different look at how slavery affected U.S.U.S. culture, but one worth looking into at the same time.

34. 1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy

1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy

Written by: James Horn

Published: 2018

Pages: 256

In 1619, the first enslaved people arrived in Virginia, establishing America's ugly history of racial inequality. Yet that same year also saw the birth of something far more enduring and meaningful: The supposed ideal of American democracy.

James Horn explores this paradoxical moment in our nation's history and shows how it laid the foundation for everything that followed.

Drawing on extensive research, Horn provides a rich and thought-provoking account of this seminal year. With vivid prose and meticulous research, Horn brings to life the people and events that shaped our nation's history.

35. White Slavery In The Barbary States

White Slavery In The Barbary States

Written by: Charles Sumner

Published: 2019

Pages: 56

This is another book that seems strange and almost unbelievable. When most people think of slavery, they imagine black men and women being dragged across the United States in chains. However, few know that similar slave trade happened in North Africa centuries ago.

Charles Sumner provides a first-hand account of the white enslaved people who were taken from Europe to be sold in the markets of North Africa. An abolitionist, Sumner used these events to show that the U.S.A.'s use of slavery is just as brutal as anywhere else in the world and should be abolished.

Initially published in 1853, this eye-opening book is a must-read for anyone interested in history or human rights.