Growing up a hair's breadth from Houston in Conroe, scholarly superstar Annette Gordon-Reed had no idea she’d change the country’s understanding of our Founding Fathers. Yet that’s exactly what her earth-shattering research on Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with Sally Hemings did when it first made headlines in the 1990s.
Now, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, who will read from her newest book during a free Inprint event on June 21, has turned her piercing gaze onto another long-ignored topic: General Order No. 3 and the 200,000-some enslaved Texans released on its June 19, 1865, signing. Part memoir, part historical account and analysis, On Juneteenth grew out of Gordon-Reed’s blistering 2020 New Yorker essay, but was also compounded by the pandemic, which she says gave her ample time alone to reminisce about her late parents.
“It’s a very, very different kind of book,” the Harvard history professor tells Houstonia during a phone interview. “The Hemingses is 800 pages, and On Juneteenth is 145 pages. The family connection is similar, writing about people in the past, but this is a much more intimate, much more personal kind of work.”
Ahead of her reading, Gordon-Reed chats with us about growing up Black in Texas and Juneteenth’s changing place in U.S. history.
Before we jump to your latest book, can we talk a bit about your ground-breaking research on the Hemings family? It’s forever changed the way we think about the Founding Fathers of our country.
It’s always nice when the work you do has an impact, people take it seriously, and you made a contribution, but that was not my original intention. I was writing it pretty much for myself. … I expected some people would read it, but I didn't think that it would get all the attention it did. I certainly didn't think it was going to win 16 prizes. I just thought it would be another book that contributed to Jefferson scholarship. I thought it would have a place, but I didn't know it would become what it became.
Speaking of history, you made history in grade school when you became the first African American student to enter Conroe’s white school system. How would you describe growing up Black in Texas?
Even though I describe a lot of the bad things that happened in my hometown over history, I would say that I had a happy childhood. It was sort of a small-town childhood—we ran around barefoot, rode bikes, did all kinds of things like that—but there was always this sense, this knowledge, that things could get out of hand. That there was a racial hierarchy. When we would go to the doctor, there were separate waiting rooms for Black and white people, and I noticed the white waiting room was bigger and nicer than our waiting room. Ours was really small, and sometimes when there were too many people, you had people who would stand outside. When I went to the movies, we sat in the balcony.
I knew these things, but this was just the way it was. When I started going to school, and some people were nice to me and some people weren't, I thought much more seriously about race. Why is this person willing to be my friend in this context but not in another? It dawned on me that they felt frightened because they knew if they showed too much enthusiasm or happiness about seeing me, their families would react poorly. That's when it dawned on me that there was this actual hostility towards Black people.
Juneteenth has its roots in Galveston, within a state founded because of slavery. How much of this was mentioned in your Texas history classes?
I don’t remember learning about Juneteenth in my history classes. Slavery was mentioned in passing; it was not something we dwelled on. … Yes, Mexico had outlawed slavery at some point, and they were kind of looking the other way about what was going on in Texas. But there was always an insecurity on the part of the Texians, as they were called, about the possibility that slavery would be interfered with. Slavery was a main reason for wanting to leave Mexico.
It wasn’t mentioned at all in school?
I don’t remember talking about bringing slaves to Texas. No, I don’t remember that. I knew about Juneteenth basically from our community and family.
Why do you think it took until 2020 for Juneteenth to finally make its way into our collective public consciousness?
A lot of it is that people thought of it as primarily a Texas holiday. Texans carried the story of Juneteenth into the diaspora when they would leave. Now, with the kind of nationwide reckoning on race, we realize that all of these moments, these important milestones, have resonance for the entire country as people thought more about race and the rights of Black people, all of these kinds of events—but particularly Juneteenth—as a touchstone for people. It's a way into a discussion about slavery, about race, and the legacies of slavery.
This interview has been edited for length.
June 21. Free. Online. More info and registration at inprinthouston.org.