Flip open the covers on the half a dozen books listed here, and pretty soon you’ll start hearing voices.
But that’s O.K. when those voices are as provocative, thoughtful, funny and fascinating as are those in the six nonfiction titles that we’ve assembled in honor of Black History Month.
One voice belongs to a woman whose career in public service would seem at cross-purposes with that of her crime lord husband. One belongs to a man who nearly gave up hope when he was sentenced to life in prison as a teenager — and now is free and owns businesses that give ex-offenders a fresh start. And one voice belongs to a 19th-century white guy from Kentucky — John Marshall Harlan, the only U.S. Supreme Court justice to declare in a landmark court case that segregation by race was illegal.
All the titles below were written by local authors. Five have been published in the past month, and one comes out in April. And all will illuminate this particular corner of the world; five of the books are set in Maryland, while the sixth is a national story with profound local ramifications.
Here they are, in alphabetical order by title:
‘Baltimore Civil Rights Leader Victorine Q. Adams: The Power of the Ballot’
Victorine Q. Adams, the first African-American woman to serve on the Baltimore City Council, was a force so imposing that she couldn’t be overshadowed by any man — not even by her husband, the Baltimore gambling kingpin, William “Little Willie” Adams.
When some suggested that she won the 1967 election solely because her wealthy husband financed her campaign, she wrote the following rebuttal, published on Dec. 25, 1971 in the Baltimore Afro-American: “I should be regarded not only as the wife of Willie Adams but as a woman who has used her influence and affluence to better the community in which she lives.”
The author is the archivist for Morgan State University, which holds Victorine Adams’ papers. Jones writes in the biography’s preface that she sought to document all the various “lines” that her subject crossed — racial, gender and voter registration — in her remarkable 93-year life.
“Baltimore Civil Rights Leader Victorine Q. Adams: The Power of the Ballot” was published Jan. 21 by Arcadia Publishing and The History Press. 128 pages, $21.99.
‘The Master Plan: My Journey from Life in Prison to a Life of Purpose’
Baltimorean Chris Wilson put together his “master plan” of all the things he intended to accomplish and the steps he’d have to take to get there at age 19 while he was serving a sentence of life in prison. But the 40-year-old Wilson no longer is behind bars. He was released in 2012 and subsequently founded the Barclay Investment Group, which seeks to employ former felons.
Wilson’s story began with a childhood characterized by hunger, neglect and physical abuse. His story is so unusual that it earned him two invitations to the White House and has been featured by such publications as Forbes, Fortune and The Baltimore Sun.
“It really feels good to help people to earn an honest living,” Wilson wrote for The Sun in 2015. “I can't help but to wonder where I would be if so many people hadn't put their faith in me and helped me be a better person.”
“The Master Plan: My Journey from Life in Prison to a Life of Purpose” was released Feb. 5 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 432 pages, $27.
‘Plantations, Slavery & Freedom on Maryland’s Eastern Shore’
Jacqueline Hedberg is a retired history teacher whose family has lived in Dorchester County for 350 years. When she read a 2015 article about a shameful episode in her birthplace’s past of which she was unaware — the forced migration of enslaved people from Maryland to such Southern states as Louisiana and Mississippi — she was shaken.
“Why didn’t I know that story?” she wrote in the book’s preface. “Why didn’t I know about coffles — those trains of slaves, chained together, forced to walk more than one thousand miles from the Chesapeake to the slave markets of the South?”
For the next few years, Hedberg poured over wills, deeds, bills of sale and other public records. She read roughly 100 books, journals and other documents, seeking to learn all about the slave trade on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. She taught what she found to the students in her adult education classes at Towson University, and then condensed it all into this book.
“Plantations, Slavery & Freedom on Maryland’s Eastern Shore” was published Jan. 21 by Arcadia Publishing and The History Press. 160 pages, $21.99.
‘Separate: The Story of Plessy V. Ferguson, and America's Journey from Slavery to Segregation,’
The second published book by Baltimore author Steve Luxenberg has only been out for a few days and it’s already generating buzz. This deeply researched story of the people involved in what is widely considered to be among the worst Supreme Court rulings of all time received a long and mostly laudatory review from The New Yorker and was named by The New York Times as one of 12 new books to watch for in February. Luxenberg also participated in NPR’s “On Point” on Feb. 8 in an hourlong discussion of race relations in the U.S.
Many books have been published previously about the Plessy v. Ferguson case, which permitted “separate but equal” treatment based on race. Luxenberg, a former editor for The Baltimore Sun, decided instead to focus on three of the main players and to explore their contradictions: Albion Tourgee, a white civil rights advocate, designed the legal strategy for Plessy. A New Englander, associate justice Henry Billings Brown, wrote the majority opinion that declared segregation to be legal. The sole dissent was written by a Southerner, Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan.
“Separate: The Story of Plessy V. Ferguson, and America's Journey from Slavery to Segregation,” was published Feb. 12 by W. W. Norton & Company. 624 pages, $35.
‘Uncle Tom’s Journey from Maryland to Canada: The Life of Josiah Henson’
The image of an “Uncle Tom” that exists now in popular culture — of a servile black man — couldn’t be further from the truth about the real-life human being behind the stereotype.
Josiah Henson was born into slavery in 1789 in Charles County. As an adult, he escaped to Canada with his wife and children, established a settlement for fugitives and repeatedly returned to the U.S. to lead others to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Henson published a bestselling autobiography and became an acclaimed preacher and lecturer, as well as the inspiration for the title character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
In recent years, several books have resurrected the story of this once-forgotten man. Troiano writes in the book’s preface that she set out to explore how Henson disappeared from history and why his name isn’t typically mentioned alongside those of more celebrated Maryland abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.
“Uncle Tom’s Journey from Maryland to Canada: The Life of Josiah Henson” was published Jan. 21 by Arcadia Publishing and The History Press. 179 pages, $21.99.
‘We Speak for Ourselves: A Word from Forgotten Black America’
Baltimore’s D. Watkins is the kind of guy who during a five-minute conversation will bring up 15 unrelated big ideas, nearly all of them interesting. His third book, an essay collection, is chock full of the author’s blunt opinions about how to engage in productive conversations about race in America.
Watkins is the self-admitted former drug dealer turned author and college professor who became nationally known in 2014 after his essay about life in East Baltimore, “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” went viral.
You’ll have to wait to read his new book — “We Speak for Ourselves” won’t be published for a few months — but the essay titles and chapter headings seem to indicate that success hasn’t mellowed Watkins. A few samples: “Intellectually Curious or Racist?” “The Sad Truth is Black Lives Really Don’t Matter” and “Did You Know There are Different Types of Black People?”
Yep — Watkins isn’t just outspoken. He’s also funny.