Nonfiction books about slavery provide factual firsthand accounts from a horrific, painful chapter of our nation’s history.
The United States was founded upon a racial caste system where slavery was legal in all Thirteen Colonies. European colonists traded with African nations to buy manual laborers for maintaining their homes and fields. It’s estimated that 10.7 million slaves were shipped to the Americas through 1867. Most were chattel slaves whose children and grandchildren were automatically enslaved. Through the 19th century, slaves were overworked, tortured, and treated as property with no rights of citizenship.
Slavery was abolished after the Emancipation Proclamation, yet this repugnant period still influences our present. Not only do books about slavery illustrate the brutal, inhumane practices before the Civil War, but they also give background for strained race relations thereafter.
Books about slavery build readers’ awareness of the struggles faced by African Americans centuries ago to today. With the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping the nation, lessons from the past on inequality and discrimination remain impactful.
Consider the following 30 books about slavery for narratives about the horrors of servitude and its lasting legacy.
#1 – Up from Slavery
Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington’s riveting autobiography details his life starting with his childhood in a Virginia slave hut. Once freed after the Civil War, Washington pulls himself up by the bootstraps to receive a higher education at Hampton University. He discusses his unrelenting work to teach Black people and minorities vocational skills. Readers follow Booker T. Washington as he leads Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute and becomes a major equal rights activist.
#2 – My Bondage and My Freedom
Published in 1855, My Bondage and My Freedom is the prominent statesman’s second slave narrative. Frederick Douglass prints painfully honest memoirs to document his early life in slavery at the Wye House plantation. His discourses give unique insight into how slaves coped with being owned and brutalized. Douglass tells how he transitioned from bondage to liberty and achieved success in the North’s largely white abolitionist movement.
#3 – Twelve Years a Slave
Adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 2013, Twelve Years a Slave tells Solomon Northup’s own harrowing experience in slavery. Born free in New York, he found the American dream with a house and loving family. That’s until he’s kidnapped from Washington, DC, and sold as a slave. Northup’s forced into cotton and sugar cultivation on Louisiana plantations for various cruel masters, but he remains incredibly determined to return home.
#4 – The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom
One of Marcus Rediker’s most powerful books about slavery tells the story of 53 African slaves who successfully took control of their ship in what’s deemed the Amistad Rebellion. Before reaching Cuba, the courageous rebels attempted to turn back to Africa. However, they are eventually caught and incarcerated in America. Audiences are engrossed in the slaves’ subsequent three-year legal battle with the U.S. Supreme Court.
#5 – The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano
Olaudah Equiano published his autobiography in 1789 to portray his enslavement. Born in Nigeria, he was traded to England as a child-slave and bought by Lieutenant Michael Pascal. Equiano was trained as a seaman to fight in The Seven Years War. When hostility ended, he purchased his freedom for forty pounds from a Pennsylvanian. His unrelenting spirit helps Olaudah Equiano succeed as a merchant and prominent abolitionist.
#6 – Race and Slavery in the Middle East
Terence Walz and Kenneth M. Cuno
Most books about slavery focus on the United States, but Race and Slavery in the Middle East provides a different global perspective. Readers learn the often untold story of the hundreds of thousands of Africans forced northward to the eastern Mediterranean during the 19th century. Nine essays converge to examine the lives of trans-Saharan Africans being enslaved in Egypt and Sudan.
#7 – Soul by Soul
Soul by Soul brings together several 19th century slave narratives to take readers inside the domestic slave trade. As the largest of the Antebellum period, the New Orleans slave market packaged and sold more than 100,000 Africans. Statistics and financial documents depict the chilling economic system shaped by human traders. Johnson shows the interrelation of capitalism and racism with the brutal selling of slaves as commodities.
#8 – The Hemingses of Monticello
Granted the National Book Award for Nonfiction, The Hemingses of Monticello is an epic work chronicling the history of four generations of an African American family. Legal records, letters, and diaries are used to track the Hemings family from its origins in 16th century Virginia. In nearly 800 pages, Gordon-Reed draws audiences into the complex, intimate relationship between their master Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.
#9 – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
Another of Frederick Douglass’ books about slavery recounts his own experience growing up enslaved in Maryland. He details watching his mother die at seven years old and witnessing his Aunt Hester being whipped. Young Frederick was then sold to Hugh Auld in Baltimore. His kind wife, Sophia Auld, teaches him to read. Soon Frederick Douglass learns the word “abolition” and begins the fight for freedom.
#10 – Yearning to Breathe Free
Sociologist Andrew Billingsley weaves the first biography on Robert Smalls, a slave raised with his master’s family in Beaufort, South Carolina. By 1862, Smalls bid for freedom and commandeered the Confederate warship, the Planter, from Charleston harbor. The Civil War hero piloted to the Union blockade and became an African American legend. Billingsley illustrates how Smalls’ family supported his persistence to eventually found the South Carolina Republican Party.
#11 – Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South
Stephanie Camp penned this nonfiction piece to disprove other historians’ notion that slaves were accommodationists to their bondage. Using slave narratives and oral histories, Camp elucidates the daily opposition of enslaved women to seek freedom for their families. She paints a convincing picture of how slaves spread abolitionist propaganda in their cabins to spark liberation ideology and escape.
#12 – Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household
It’s a common misconception that mistresses were “allies” to enslaved women on their plantations. Here the astute Thavolia Glymph proves this notion of female solidarity wrong with robust historical sources. Mistresses were elite leaders in the slavery hierarchy, not simply victims of a patriarchal system. Glymph details the cruel, violent relations between mid-19th century African American and white women.
#13 – William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond
John Henrik Clarke
William Styron’s best-selling novel about slavery, The Confession of Nat Turner, has been met with strong hostility from the African American community. John Henrik Clarke gathers a gifted group of Black intellectuals to criticize the Pulitzer Prize winner’s prejudiced account. With ardent anger, the writers respond to Styron and seek to prove Nat Turner’s alleged “confession” as a fabrication.
#14 – Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World
David Brion Davis
Noted as a leading authority on slavery, David Brion Davis has extensively researched the mistreatment of Blacks since serving as a sailor in World War II. In 2006, this nonfiction novel was published to explore the long evolution of slavery and anti-Black racism since ancient times. Davis spans centuries to highlight the dehumanization of Africans in the emergence of the Americas.
#15 – The Known World
Edward P. Jones
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward P. Jones’ debut novel takes readers to Virginia’s Manchester County two decades before the Civil War. He addresses an often neglected topic of the Antebellum South – Black slaveholders. Jones introduces Henry Townsend, a 31-year-old former slave who now owns 33 slaves on his 50-acre plot. But when Henry dies and his wife Caldonia gains ownership, the plantation begins to unravel.
#16 – Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities
Craig Wilder’s provocative novel supports his well-researched argument that early colleges were the third pillar of civilization based on slavery. The historian uncovers uncomfortable truths about how the slave economy and higher learning were born together. Wilder reveals that the history of revered universities like Rutgers, Yale, Brown, and Harvard are soaked in slaves’ sweat.
#17 – White Gold
Another of the books about slavery not set in the southern United States is White Gold, a true story about white Europeans captured by Islamic traders. Giles Milton illustrates how nearly one million white slaves were sold in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. He introduces Thomas Pellow, an 11-year-old Cornish cabin boy seized at sea with 51 comrades by Barbary pirates. Readers witness his 23 years’ imprisonment with the tyrannical Sultan Moulay Ismail.
#18 – Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America
Most Americans identify slavery with cotton in the Deep South. Noted historian Ira Berlin details the first 200 years of slave life on the mainland before cotton became king. From Plymouth to the Chesapeake Bay, Berlin reveals the diverse forms that slavery has assumed. He recounts the back-breaking labor of Creole slaves, Blacks, and indentured whites to build the colonies.
#19 – Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
Douglas A. Blackmon
It’s generally accepted that slavery ended after the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. However, Douglas A. Blackmon presents lost stories of the “Age of Neoslavery.” He digs into personal narratives of Black men and women unable to escape the shadow of servitude after the Civil War. Blackmon details the recurrence of forced labor during the 20th century and its insidious legacy.
#20 – Empire of Cotton: A Global History
As winner of the 2015 Bancroft Prize, Empire of Cotton: A Global History is one of the most recent nonfiction books about slavery. Within its 640 pages, Sven Beckert tells the story of how European colonists grew the world’s most significant manufacturing industry. He charts the expansion of cotton capitalism while discussing the disturbing work conditions that sparked struggles between planters and their slaves.
#21 – Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Harriet Ann Jacobs
Originally penned under the pseudonym Linda Brent in 1861, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was one of the first slave narratives published. Born in Edenton, North Carolina, Harriet Ann Jacobs portrays her childhood in slavery. Jacobs shares her daily struggles and sexual abuse on the Flints’ plantation before escaping to New York. She also addresses the fear sparked by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
#22 – Bury the Chains
Written by the acclaimed author of King Leopold’s Ghost, this nonfiction work tells the gripping tale of the fight to free the British Empire’s slaves. In 1787, the world’s first grass-roots social justice movement began with just 12 men in a London printing shop. From wall posters to boycotts, the men pioneer a groundbreaking anti-slavery crusade to Bury the Chains in British colonies.
#23 – The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America
Andrés Reséndez confronts a painful piece of U.S. history that’s often left hidden within his 2016 book titled The Other Slavery. Historical testimonies are interwoven to portray over two centuries of Indian enslavement in America. Since the time of Columbus, conquistadors forced tens of thousands of indigenous peoples into labor. Reséndez argues that mass slavery caused the Indian population’s decimation, not epidemic.
#24 – Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy
With a foreword by Steven Hahn, Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy is one of the few books about slavery that focuses on its aftermath. Eric Foner presents three long essays about the system of forced labor in the South, British Caribbean, and East Africa. Foner compares the progress of freedmen post-Civil War with other emancipated societies to track slavery’s enduring impact long after.
#25 – The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
Edward E. Baptist
Crowned Amazon’s #1 best-seller on slavery, this nonfiction book shapes slave narratives and plantation records into a riveting tale of the United States’ evolution. Edward E. Baptist shows how the expansion of slavery after the Revolution helped modernize the young capitalist economy. He argues that forced migration and torture was the foundation for achieving America’s dreams of freedom.
#26 – The Mind of the South
Since being published in 1941, W.J. Cash’s path-breaking book has defined how audiences have viewed the Southern class system. The socio-historical piece explores the legacy of racism and slavery in culture below the Mason-Dixon line. Cash sheds light on the predominant and primitive traits of the Southern mindset. From colonial times to the Reconstruction, many myths about the South’s identity are debunked.
#27 – Day of Tears
Master storyteller Julius Lester centered this historical YA novel to chronicle the largest slave auction in American history. On March 2, 1859, in Savannah, Georgia, the darkened skies began to weep as more than 400 slaves are sold by Pierce Butler to pay off gambling debts. Emma has taken care of his daughters, Sarah and Frances, since birth, but greed will rip the Butler household apart.
#28 – The Fiery Trial
Eric Foner, a Columbia University professor, has penned several books about slavery, including The Fiery Trial. This 448-page historical landmark tracks Abraham Lincoln’s engagement with the nation’s most critical issue – slavery. Readers are thrust into turbulent racial politics to account Lincoln’s battles with both abolitionists and racist Northern whites. Foner offers an interesting portrait of the 16th President’s path towards emancipating slaves.
#29 – The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture
David Brion Davis
Beginning David Brion Davis’ three-part volume on The Problem of Slavery, this book penetrates into extensive analysis on slavery from antiquity to the 1770s. Slavery has existed since the dawn of civilization, yet Davis seeks to determine why it took centuries for humans to deem slavery as immoral. The historian traces the cultural, social, religious, and political factors that finally dawned the abolitionist movement.
#30 – The Underground Railroad