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Lifting the Chains

The Black Freedom Struggle Since Reconstruction

William H. Chafe

Publication Date - 29 August 2023

ISBN: 9780197616451

368 pages
6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches


All-Black institutions and local community groups have been at the forefront of the freedom struggle since the beginning.

Lifting the Chains is a history of the Black experience in America since the Civil War, told by one of our most
distinguished historians of modern America, William H. Chafe. He argues that, despite the wishes and arguments of many whites to the contrary, the struggle for freedom has been carried out primarily by Black Americans, with only occasional assistance from whites. Chafe highlights the role of all-black institutions--especially the churches, lodges, local gangs, neighborhood women's groups, and the Black college clubs that gathered at local pool halls--that talked up the issues, examined different courses of action, and then put their lives on the line to make change happen.

The book draws heavily on the tremendous oral history archives at Duke that Chafe founded and nurtured, much of which is previously unpublished. The archives are now a collection of more than 3,600 oral histories tracing the evolution of Black activism, managed under the auspices of the Duke Center for Documentary History. The project uncovered the degree to which Blacks never gave up the struggle against racism, even during the height of Jim Crow segregation from 1900 to 1950. Chafe draws on these valuable resources to build this definitive history of African American activism, a history that can and should inform Black Lives Matter and other contemporary social justice movements.


  • Builds a definitive history of African American activism
  • Uses previously unpublished oral history sources
  • Provides insight into the role of all-black institutions in the freedom struggle

About the Author(s)

William H. Chafe graduated from Harvard College in 1962, received his Ph.D from Columbia University in 1971, and has taught at Duke University for the past fifty years. Former Chair of the History Department and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, he has published 13 books, been selected as president of the Organization of American Historians, is a Phi Beta Kappa Fellow, and has been awarded two Fulbright Awards. He is married to Lorna Chafe, and they have two children, Christopher and Jennifer.


"Bill Chafe's Lifting the Chains tells the powerful story of men, women, and children who wrote themselves into history, battled the contradictions of slavery and freedom, strove to end the hurts of racism, and in the process made the nation better. A fitting addition to a long and distinguished career." -- Earl Lewis, Thomas C. Holt Distinguished University Professor of History, Afroamerican and African Studies and Public Policy, University of Michigan

"Written by one of the nation's most distinguished scholars, Lifting the Chains is a vivid, highly readable yet also well researched survey of African American history in the post-slavery era." -- Clayborne Carson, Martin Luther King Jr., Centennial Professor of History, Emeritus, Stanford University

"The distinguished historian William Chafe has offered another gem to the growing body of knowledge on Black-led freedom campaigns, and the importance of Black leadership in establishing liberatory institutions. By making unrelenting demands on an often unresponsive government, and by building and creating independent projects, Black historical actors have been in the forefront of the fight to make 'freedom' real and tangible for all. Lifting the Chains eloquently reminds us of these important truths, and their relevance to contemporary struggles for Black freedom." -- Barbara Ransby, John D. MacArthur University Chair and Distinguished Professor of Black Studies and History, University of Illinois at Chicago, author of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement and Making All Black Lives Matter

Table of Contents

    Chapter One: Present at the Creation: 1863-1877
    Chapter Two: The Twilight Years, 1877-1898
    Chapter Three: Family, Church and Community
    Chapter Four: Education and Work
    Chapter Five: Politics and Resistance: From 1900 to World War I
    Chapter Six: World War I
    Chapter Seven: The 1920s and 30s
    Chapter Eight: The Persistence of Struggle, the Beginning of Hope: African-Americans and World War II
    Chapter Nine: Postwar Protest
    Chapter Ten: A New Language of Protest, a New Generation of Activists
    Chapter Eleven: Winning the Right to Vote, Coming Apart in the Process
    Chapter Twelve: Triumph and Division
    Chapter Thirteen: The Struggle Continues
    Chapter Fourteen: Conclusion

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