Capitol Kids: Michelle Coles on “Black Was the Ink”

Forgotten heroes still leave their mark.

On February 15, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society continued its “Capitol Kids” series with civil rights attorney and author Michelle Coles as she discussed her novel Black Was the Ink, a young adult historical fiction about the Reconstruction Era and the first Black members of the U.S. Congress.

Malcolm Williams hasn’t been okay for a while. He’s angry and despondent and feels like nothing good ever happens for teens like him in D.C. All he wants is to be left alone in his room for the summer to draw or play video games–but no such luck. With growing violence in his neighborhood, his mother ships him off to his father’s family farm in Mississippi, and Malcolm is anything but pleased. A few days after his arrival, his great-aunt tells him that the State is acquiring the farm to widen a highway. It’s not news Malcolm is concerned about, but someone plans to make it his concern. One minute Malcolm is drawing in the farmhouse attic, and the next he’s looking through the eyes of his ancestor Cedric Johnson in 1866.

As Cedric, Malcolm meets the real-life Black statesmen who fought for change during the Reconstruction era: Hiram Revels, Robert Smalls, and other leaders who made American history. But even after witnessing their bravery, Malcolm’s faith in his own future remains shaky, particularly since he knows that the gains these statesmen made were almost immediately stripped away. If those great men couldn’t completely succeed, why should he try? Malcolm must decide which path to take. Can Cedric’s experiences help him construct a better future? Or will he resign himself to resentments and defeat?

Like all USCHS Programs, this webinar is free and open to the public by registration.

Michelle Coles is an award-winning young adult novelist, former civil rights attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, and public speaker. As a 9th generation Louisianan, she is highly attuned to the struggles that African Americans have faced in overcoming the legacy of slavery and the periods of government-sanctioned discrimination that followed. She is a proud alumna of Howard University School of Law, where she graduated as valedictorian of her class, and the University of Virginia. Her goal in writing is to empower young people by educating them about history and giving them the tools to shape their own destiny. She lives in Maryland with her family. Her debut young adult historical fiction novel, Black Was the Ink, was published with Tu Books, an imprint of Lee and Low Books, on November 2, 2021. Black Was the Ink was awarded the 2022 Grateful American Book Prize, a 2022 Skipping Stone Award, and the 2019 New Visions Award Honor.