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February 1, 2011

Black History Month 2011 -- best books

black history month 2011

As Black History Month 2011 begins, I thought back to some of the books I read last year on the topic -- and a few that I missed. Here's a short list of recommendations, including two favorites, bios of Louis Armstrong and Willie Mays, who lived through the Civil Rights era but stayed mostly on the sidelines of the major upheavals. Still, their stories provided insight into the turmoil gripping America in those days. (I don't have a good book on the topic on my nightstand right now, so suggestions are welcome.)

"Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend" by James S. Hirsch.

"Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong" by Terry Teachout.

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot.

"The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration" by Isabel Wilkerson.

"The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates" by Wes Moore.


Posted by Dave Rosenthal at 11:38 AM | | Comments (3)


Please consider including in Reading Lists for Black History: SISTER
TO COURAGE: Stories from the World of Viola Desmond, Canada's Rosa
Parks, by Wanda Robson. Below is a sketch re Viola Desmond's
rediscovery in 2010. A Canadian icon for Social Justice, in 1946 she
refused to move to the blacks-only section of the Roseland Theatre,
New Glasgow--setting off a night in jail, court case etc. And she
proved to be much more than a
moment in time. Let me know if you want to see a pdf of the book.
With thanks, Ronald Caplan, publisher, Breton Books

Viola Desmond's Remarkable Year

Driven by Sister to Courage, the new book by her sister Wanda Robson,
the year 2010 has been a dazzling year for Viola Desmond—an
African-Canadian icon for social justice who died in 1965.

Called “Canada's Rosa Parks,” Viola Desmond is remembered for her act of
defiance in Nov 8, 1946, when she refused to give up her seat in the
whites-only section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova
Scotia. It took two men to wrestle her 98 pounds from the theatre. She
was jailed and, to avoid the racial nature of the event, her court
case turned on a fine for failing to pay one penny—ONE PENNY—in the
provincial amusement tax, the difference in the price of a ticket in
the white section compared with the balcony where blacks were allowed
to sit.

In 2010, 64 years later, on the heels of Sister to Courage: Stories
from the World of Viola Desmond, Premier Darrell Dexter offered Nova
Scotia's apology to the late Viola Desmond, and Lt.-Gov. Mayann
Francis signed the rare Free Pardon—the first ever issued
posthumously. The Pardon made it clear that Viola was innocent, and
underscored the miscarriage of justice.

2010 also included two days of celebration in New Glasgow in honour
of Viola Desmond. During Black Gala Homecoming Week, the town turned a
negative moment in its history into a lasting informational heritage
tour. Lt.Gov. Mayann Francis was there to unveil a tribute bench in
the Africentic Park; an historic panel detailing the events of Nov. 8,
1946 was presented to the library; a portrait of Viola Desmond and the
original Free Pardon were given a permanent place in Town Hall. And
the next morning Mayor Barrie MacMillan hosted an exuberant launch
party for Wanda Robson’s book, Sister to Courage.

On Nov 8, 2010, the anniversary of Viola's defiance, Cape Breton
University announced the Viola Desmond Research Chair in Social
Justice. And that same day in Halifax, a life-size portrait of Desmond
was unveiled for permanent display in Government House. Wanda was
invited by the Council on African Canadian Education to give the
keynote address to graduates at their Kwanzaa dinner. New Glasgow
managed to win back the spotlight in late November, having Viola’s
sister Wanda Robson back—as Grand Marshall of the town's
Christmas parade.

This chain of events started when Ronald Caplan, publisher of Breton
Books, realized that Viola's refusal to give up her seat in 1946 would
make a good story but, as he put it, "I wanted to see if Viola Desmond
was more than a moment in time.” He wondered what kind of world and
upbringing resulted in Viola Desmond. What else had she done that
culminated in that powerful evening in the Roseland Theatre? Viola
had died in 1965, alone and pretty much forgotten. But Caplan
discovered Viola Desmond’s sister, Wanda Robson, living only a few
miles away in North Sydney, Cape Breton Island. A youthful
eighty-three, Wanda turned out to be not only interested in Viola; she
was also a terrific storyteller with a desire to share the story of
her family—the remarkable Davis family of Halifax. Caplan, who had
interviewed for Cape Breton’s Magazine for 25 years, began visiting
Wanda and recording her stories. The result is a new book, Sister to
Courage: Stories from the World of Viola Desmond, Canada’s Rosa Parks.
Sister to Courage is storytelling at its best. The parents James and
Gwendolyn Davis and their fifteen children come alive through
treasured and revealing events—stories by turns heartbreaking and
hilarious. Members of the Halifax black community—middle-class
property managers—they were hit hard by the Depression. Rich or poor,
family and education came first, and the Davis family took on the
personal and public struggles as they came.

And through Wanda’s book, Viola turns out to be much more than a
moment in time. Inspired by the success of Madame J. C. Walker, the
American woman who became a millionaire through her beauty care
products for black women, Viola determined to establish her own
business in Atlantic Canada. This was in a time a black woman could
not get a haircut in a Halifax beauty parlour. Viola traveled to Upper
Canada and New York for education in beauty care. She worked nights as
a cigarette girl. She returned to Halifax and opened a successful
beauty parlour, and began to produce her own line of hair and skin
products. She established the Desmond School of Beauty Care—the first
school for hairdressers that admitted black women. Her trained
graduates began opening their own parlours in Nova Scotia and New
Brunswick. Viola became an early franchiser, supplying these new
beauty parlours with her products.

She was on the road on November 8, 1946, taking her products to a
client in Sydney, Cape Breton, when her car broke down. They wouldn’t
have the part until morning. She’d have to stay the night in New

This was an opportunity to take in a movie, a rare moment to relax in
a hardworking life. She sat on the first floor, up close, as she
always did in Halifax where a person could sit anywhere in the
theatre—when a young girl tapped her on the shoulder, told her “you
people” can’t sit here. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Wanda Robson’s telling of Viola and her family is acute and
compelling. She has the courage to reveal her own failings and growth.
And out of Sister to Courage comes the story of at least three
courageous women—mother Gwendolyn Davis, Wanda herself, and of course
Viola Desmond. Sister to Courage includes photographs and the text of
the Nova Scotia Apology to Viola Desmond, as well as the Free Pardon.

The book is 184 pages, paperback, and sells for 17.95. It is available
from Breton Books at and via toll-free
1-800-565-5140. The book is distributed across Canada by Nimbus

CONTACT: For printable photos of Wanda Robson, Viola Desmond and
Viola’s first graduating class, phone 1-800-565-5140 or

Here is a short bio of Wanda Robson
> Born in Halifax in 1926 to Gwendolyn Irene Davis and James Albert
> Davis.
> Wanda attended Sir Charles Tupper, Alexandra School, Bloomfield
> Junior High. and Graduated from Queen Elizabeth High School. In 1943
> Wanda began working at the Federal Fisheries Research Station on
> Lower Water St. as a lab assistant. She later married and moved to the
> United States where she lived for 10 years. She divorced and returned
> in 1959 with her three boys to Halifax and work at the Fisheries Lab.
> She remarried in 1971 and in 1975 moved to North Sydney with her
> husband Joe and their two children.
> Wanda first attended UCCB ( now Cape Breton University ) in 1999 and
> graduated at age 77 with a BA.
> For the past 5 years Wanda has been talking to school and University
> students and other groups about her sister Viola Desmond. It is mostly
> due to Wanda’s letter writing that the Province of Nova Scotia
> posthumously granted The Queen’s Royal Prerogative of Mercy Free
> Pardon to her sister Viola in April of 2010.
> Wanda is the author of SISTER TO COURAGE: Stories from the World of Viola Desmond, Canada's Rosa Parks.

may i suggest (u know i will anyway!)

books by Balto African Americans- poetry and prose- prose- um, teacher at UMD (i think) - book on the last lynching in Md- other names that do come to mind- Paul Coates and his son (book on the b more Panthers) , Sam Cornish, Paul Jacobs, Jacob Newkirk, Olu Butterfly, for poetry.........there's a very active scene!

can i throw in a couple of honkees? Wm Styron's Nat Turner and the 10 black scholars respond book- Tim Tyson's phenomenal Blood Done Signed My Name,

I like the capchas where the letters bleed into each other and you can't figure it out?

The most horrifying book I read on the subject last year was "The Constitution A Pro-Slavery Compact", first published in 1844 and republished in 1969. It includes the notes of Jefferson and Madison on the Constitutional Conventions between 1776 and 1790. Every justification for slavery is included, while avoiding the actual word. The North's refusal to acknowledge its own slaves is obvious, along with the observation that the conflict was not between the small states and the large states, but rather, between the slave states and the nonslave states.

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About the blogger
Dave Rosenthal came to The Baltimore Sun as a business reporter in 1987 and now is the Maryland Editor. He reads a wide range of books (but never as many as he'd like), usually alternating between non-fiction and fiction. Some all-time favorites: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole; Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery; and anything by Calvin Trillin or John McPhee. He belongs to a book club with a Jewish theme.
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