Annette Gordon-Reed’s Personal History of Juneteenth

Annette Gordon-Reed’s Personal History of Juneteenth

Origin Stories

Annette Gordon-Reed’s personal history of Juneteenth.

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The publication of the 1619 Project by The New York Times in 2019 pushed many Americans to reconsider what they assumed they knew about African American and, more generally, US history. The project, whose title refers to the importation of the first enslaved Africans to the Virginia colony in 1619, sought to show how, in the introductory words of its special issue, “no aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the 250 years of slavery that followed.”

There were good reasons to start the project in 1619—many African Americans trace the beginnings of Black America to this moment—and to focus on Virginia, but it could have started earlier, too. The story of Africans in North America can, in fact, be traced as far back as 1526 and the creation of the San Miguel de Gualdape colony in what would become South Carolina—a colony that was likely destroyed by a mutiny of the colonists and a slave revolt. More than 140 years later, the colony of Carolina would be founded by English settlers from Barbados who hoped to create a settlement purely for the purpose of plantation slavery.

Annette Gordon-Reed’s new book, On Juneteenth, considers another set of bifurcating paths in African American history—this time in her home state of Texas, where both her own history and that of Juneteenth began. Texas, she argues, provides a key to the history of Africans in North America, and, coupled with the rapidly popularized holiday of Juneteenth, offers a different perspective from the one to which most Americans are accustomed. For her, the history of Black Texas, in fact, allows one to tell the larger history of Black America. “The history of Juneteenth,” she writes, “which includes the many years before the events in Galveston and afterward, shows that Texas, more than any [other] state in the Union, has always embodied nearly every major aspect of the story of the United States of America.”

This is a bold statement. Others might alternately cite the Low Country of South Carolina or the Mississippi Delta or the South Side of Chicago. Yet Gordon-
Reed’s contention, by the end of her book, proves hard to dismiss. By using the history of Black Texas, she is also able to tell the story of Black America, and by doing so, she places Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous Americans at the forefront of US history. If nothing else, she shifts its focus away from the East Coast origin stories of Jamestown and Plymouth and toward the West. Everything is bigger in Texas, and in the hands of 
Gordon-Reed, the history of Texas becomes large enough to encompass the fullness of the American story.

Gordon-Reed has spent her career studying the majestic and often confounding contradictions of American life and how we memorialize them. Her two best-known works—1997’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy and 2008’s The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family—told the story of Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who was forcibly involved in a sexual relationship with Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings offered a thorough account of the relationship between the two, a subject that had long been ignored by many Jefferson scholars. The book also proved to be something far more: an analysis of those historians who refused to reckon with the centrality of slavery in the founding of the United States—and in particular its importance in the lives of the country’s “founding fathers.”

Much of this previous scholarship was criticized by Gordon-Reed “as a rejection of black people’s input and black people’s participation in American society.” Along with an emerging new generation of historians, she sought to correct this. As David Walton argued in his review of the book in The New York Times, Gordon-Reed provided a “devastating and persuasive critique of those who have rejected” the possibility of Jefferson having sex with Hemings and “is sure to be the next-to-last word for every historian who writes about this story hereafter.”

The Hemingses of Monticello was arguably even more groundbreaking, shifting the traditional lens on Monticello from Jefferson and Hemings to the family tree they produced. The book, for which she became the first African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for History, was also part of a larger goal at the center of her career: to push Americans to rethink their nation’s past—in particular, its origin myths. Her scholarship, Gordon-Reed explained in an interview, sought to establish “black people’s participation as American citizens from the very beginning.” For her, this was more than a matter of the historical record; it was also an assertion of citizenship. Because white supremacy had so deeply influenced the telling of US history, she noted, “you have to be able to help write the history of the country in order to establish your right to be here, to say that you’re legitimately here.”

This quest to re-center American history around the experience of those who are not white is also at the core of On Juneteenth. By focusing on Texas, 
Gordon-Reed can tell not only the story of Black America but also “of Indians, settler colonialists, Hispanic culture in North America, slavery, race, and immigration. It is the American story, told from this most American place.” She does have a point: Nearly every great movement in American history did, at some time, touch Texas. Everything from the rise and fall of slavery in antebellum America to the Populist movement to the civil rights movement and the white backlash against it has left an imprint on the history of Texas, and, in turn, Texas impacted each of them in ways the entire United States had to deal with.

The origin of Juneteenth exemplifies the central role Texas played in the history of Black America. When Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger entered Galveston on June 19, 1865, and informed the enslaved that they were free, the Civil War had ended across much of the South, and the region—and most of the nation—was convulsing with the beginnings of Reconstruction. If the Confederacy had won the Civil War, Texas would likely have become the chief example of what that government would have stood for—not only as a bastion of slavery but as a harbinger of its expansion throughout the Western Hemisphere via white settler colonialism and violent confrontation. But with Granger’s emancipatory declaration, and in the aftermath of the South’s defeat, Texas became an arena in which those pursuing a more inclusive idea of American freedom battled those seeking to restore the subservient relationship of African Americans as close to the old form of slavery as possible. Before the Civil War, Texas took steps in its Constitution to prevent the movement of free African Americans into the state. “Seeing that Black people could exist outside of legal slavery,” Gordon-Reed writes, “put the lie to the idea that Blacks were born to be slaves.”

For Gordon-Reed, the history of East Texas, which was the nexus of slavery in the state and where much of the fight over the terms of emancipation raged, helps tell this story of American contradictions in microcosm. Reconstruction was a bloody affair across the South, but in Texas it was especially grim—in part because, Gordon-Reed notes, the white population still remembered that the state had been a republic. The struggles over civil and political rights that roiled the nation during Reconstruction were magnified in Texas by the contradictions of self-government—of a white majority seeking to impose its will on a large Black minority.

The pursuit of emancipation was frustrated almost from the start. Gen. Philip Sheridan, the military commander of the Fifth Military District (Texas and Louisiana), created by the Reconstruction Act of 1867, worked hard to protect the rights of newly freed African Americans, but as a result he drew the ire of former Confederates and eventually was fired by President Andrew Johnson. (Sheridan purportedly said, “If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent Texas and live in Hell.”) His replacement, Winfield Scott Hancock, was far more lenient toward white Southerners who resisted giving Black Americans any rights whatsoever. As W.E.B. Du Bois noted in Black Reconstruction in America, citing a report from the Committee on Lawlessness and Violence in Texas, “Charged by law to keep the peace and afford protection to life and property, and having the army of the United States to assist him in so doing, [Hancock] has failed.”

For generations afterward, African Americans would fight to save Texas from the hell it had been turned into by white supremacy. Black Texans like Norris Wright Cuney would play a pivotal role in helping other Black citizens get involved in their native state’s politics. Cuney himself would become the Texas national committeeman of the Republican Party in 1886 and as president of the Union League led the national fight against the attempts of the party’s conservative wing to purge what was left of the Southern Black leadership. Like Sheridan, however, Cuney found that his leadership of the Texas GOP was one of the last hurrahs of the emancipationist spirit of the 1860s. Even if Texas was the state in which Juneteenth and the celebrations that followed were born, so, too, was it a state of stalwart resistance to Reconstruction and Black freedom.

For Gordon-Reed, who was born in 1958, this grim past was never dead. Growing up in East Texas, she saw living reminders of it all around her—both the struggles for freedom and the institutions created by African Americans to survive in a cruel Jim Crow system. Just as in the years after the Civil War, the power and dogged determination of white supremacy persisted.

As Gordon-Reed recounts of her own childhood, she initially attended an African American school, as so many of her friends and family had, before becoming one of the first Black students in her area to desegregate an all-white school. Entering first grade in the mid-1960s, she was enrolled in the Anderson Elementary School, leaving behind her all-Black school, Booker T. Washington. While some Black parents frowned on the Gordons’ sending their child to a previously all-white school, Gordon-Reed remembered the moment as one that was as much about practicality as politics. Her father, Alfred Gordon Sr., simply believed it made more sense for a school to have students correctly separated by age. Anderson Elementary provided that; Booker T., as it was affectionately known, did not. But it also meant that Gordon-Reed would be the only Black student there.

Gordon-Reed excelled in school, both at Booker T  . and at Anderson. At the time, she felt that she “never experienced any different treatment…. In fact, I felt nothing but…support.” Still, she knew and understood that she was different from the other students—and that she had to excel on behalf of the Black community. “This period was intense,” she writes. “My mother remembers me breaking out in hives at one point, a thing I don’t recall.”

Gordon-Reed’s experience of desegregation is a valuable one. Often, the story of school desegregation follows a student or students—the Little Rock Nine of Arkansas, for example—up to the school door and then leaves them to be immortalized in history. There is little consideration about the short- and long-term consequences of the experience on the children. “There was an oddity of being on display,” Gordon-Reed recalls, but few considered the effects of desegregation on the Black students who entered the formerly all-white schools—especially those, like Gordon-Reed, who were on their own. “Not to take anything away from the teachers and administrators at Anderson, but I did make things easy for them,” she adds. Her intellect certainly helped, but so did the fact that, because she was the only Black person enrolled at the school, she was not seen as an “invasion” of Black students. “The degree of racial tolerance among Whites has always been about numbers,” she notes.

Gordon-Reed’s experiences after high school were like those of other African Americans who came of age during the civil rights and Black Power eras: increased opportunities for education at the finest of American universities. For Gordon-Reed, that meant attending Dartmouth College in the late 1970s and, eventually, Harvard Law School. But the experience of desegregating a school—and understanding what that desegregation meant for other African Americans—lingered, both for her and, more broadly, she argues, as a feature of the history of Texas and Black America.

Like her earlier work on the Hemingses, On Juneteenth is determined to force us to rethink our origin stories. As Gordon-Reed notes, for example, the push for desegregating schools did mark the beginning of a new turn in Black freedom, but it was also greeted ambivalently by more African Americans than classic narratives of the civil rights movement would have us believe: “Some members of the Black community felt that my parents were making a statement—alas, a negative one—about the quality of teaching and education at Washington.” Leaving Booker T. 
for a formerly all-white institution was seen in her African American community as equal parts heroic and bordering on betrayal. For most, Black schools were symbols of community empowerment and self-determination—symbols that, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, would eventually be degraded and destroyed by an education system that had previously ignored them.

Eschewing nostalgia, Gordon-Reed demands that her readers reexamine their assumptions about American history and their commitments in the present. Focusing on the history of African Americans in Texas helps her make this compelling argument for an update to the story of America: She welds a new narrative onto the one we already have. “Origin stories matter, for individuals, groups of people, and for nations,” she explains, but we also need to separate out the “origin stories” we tell ourselves from actual history, making it clear that the two are often not the same.

Gordon-Reed challenged the infallibility and the mythology of the founding fathers through her work on Jefferson and the Hemingses, and in On Juneteenth, she spends a considerable amount of time demarcating the differences between the origin story that places the beginning of the United States in Plymouth—“a founding story about valiant people leaving their homes to escape religious persecution”—and the one that places it in Jamestown colony: “It is difficult to wrest an uplifting story from the doings of English settlers who created the colony for no purpose other than making money or, at least, to make a living for themselves.” Starting before 1619 and beyond Jamestown colony, she argues, also gives the African American experience a longer and more international origin story, touching as it would on the presence of Estebanico, an enslaved African explorer who was part of the Spanish expedition of what is now Texas in the 1530s.

Spanish St. Augustine, Gordon-Reed writes, had long existed partly as a settlement for Africans who’d escaped slavery in the English colonies, and ignoring the presence of Africans in other European settlements in North America—whether established by the Spanish, the French, or the Dutch—led to what she calls “an extremely narrow construction of Blackness.” By considering the other Black Americas—those formed outside the reach of the English-speaking colonies—Gordon-
Reed also helps us better understand the relationships among African, Hispanic, and Indigenous Americans and reminds us of the non-Anglophone influences on the formation of what became the United States. By incorporating so much recent scholarship on the Atlantic world and the early encounters among various ethnic and racial groups in North America, she argues, we can understand “that the origin story of Africans in North America is much richer and more complicated than the story of twenty Africans arriving in Jamestown in 1619.”

As readers come to the end of On Juneteenth, they begin to realize that as much as the emancipation in Galveston and the original holiday of Juneteenth frame the book, contrasting these different origin stories is one of its central premises. Even the origin story of Texas comes under scrutiny. Building on the scholarship of others, Gordon-Reed notes that the early days of Texas’s struggle for independence from Mexico were also tied to the institution of slavery. Rather than pursue freedom, the white Americans who fought for Texan independence sought to create a slaveholding republic. Growing up in Jim Crow–era Texas, a young Annette Gordon was not taught this. When it came to the Alamo, the birthplace of modern Texas, she writes, “I didn’t know that an enslaved person was there.” For Americans who wish to avoid the unpleasantness of racism in our country’s past, Gordon-Reed points to the documents themselves. “Race is right there in the documents—official and personal,” she writes. Texas’s own constitution, promulgated after independence in 1836, explicitly excluded free people of African descent from citizenship. Black people in Texas were to be there for one reason: enslavement.

Gordon-Reed also writes of how Texas’s oft-recounted origin story elides the plight of Indigenous peoples. The early Republic of Texas under Sam Houston could potentially countenance living side by side with Indigenous groups like the Alabamas and Coushattas, but later Texas leaders insisted on the familiar American pattern of driving Indigenous groups from their lands. This experience of oppression also linked the fates of enslaved Africans and Indigenous peoples: Both had a common enemy in white supremacy, one that was around after slavery’s abolition. As a young girl coming of age during not only the civil rights and Black Power eras but also the rise of the American Indian Movement of the 1970s, Gordon-Reed wondered why Indigenous and African groups had not joined forces against the Europeans in North America. One complicating factor was certainly that some Indigenous peoples also held Africans in slavery. “There was no ‘natural’ alliance” between the groups, Gordon-Reed writes, reminding us once again of the problem of crafting myths about the past, as opposed to cold, hard actual history. “Writers, and consumers, of history must take great care not to import the knowledge we have into the minds of people and of circumstances in the past,” she warns.

On Juneteenth begins and ends with the holiday of the same name, and here too Gordon-Reed reminds us that like origin stories, our regional and national holidays say a great deal about the stories we wish to tell about ourselves. While at the beginning of the book Gordon-
Reed expresses surprise—and a little consternation—that a holiday celebrated primarily in Texas during her life has become nationally known, at the end she reminisces about how Juneteenth was an important part of her life, and one that incorporated cultural traditions from other groups.

Juneteenth celebrations, Gordon-Reed tells us, included the traditional “red ‘soda-
water’”—a delicious strawberry-flavored drink that some argue traces its origins to the hibiscus tea of West Africa—seen at so many African American holiday gatherings, but they also included the preparation of tamales, a dish originating with Mesoamerican civilizations, and pointed to the ways in which Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic Americas intersected in Texas. Such a set of culinary rituals, Gordon-
Reed writes, made the day “so very Texan.” But as she goes on to argue, it also made the day—and its history—so very American.

Making Juneteenth into a national holiday not only nationalizes Texas’s history but, Gordon-Reed argues, also serves as a moment of national reflection on the effort needed to destroy slavery and, in its aftermath, the struggle to affirm a new birth of freedom. With Republican politicians pushing to abolish critical race theory and the continued assaults on use of the 1619 Project in the classroom—not to mention the raging debates about Confederate statues and other “Lost Cause” memorials—it is clear that powerful leaders in society also understand the importance of historical memory. Besides origin stories, Gordon-Reed reminds us, history provides us with a way to think about the present and future—and, just as with the past, the remaking of our contemporary world will likely be messier, if potentially more emancipatory, but also more tragic than any of us is willing to fathom.

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