Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian Annette Gordon-Reed has written a new book “On Juneteenth,” a memoir about the history of Texas while weaving in stories from her childhood. Born in Livingston, while growing up in Conroe, Texas, Gordon-Reed reminisces about growing up in the segregated South and her experiences as the first Black child in her town to go to an all-white school. She also shares poignant memories of celebrating Juneteenth as a child.
Currently teaching at Harvard University, Gordon-Reed is well-known as the author of “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, An American Controversy,” and “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” with the latter earning her the Pulitzer Prize. Her new book now gives readers a deeper insight on the history of Juneteenth and explains why people across the country should celebrate the day.
BET.com: Why did you write this book? What was your inspiration behind this project?
Annette Gordon-Reed: I wrote this book because I wanted to give people a different view of Texas and talk about some of my experiences growing up there. There is a lot about Texas that people do not know. Also, my editor had been after me to write a book about Texas, so during the pandemic, I wrote this book.
BET.com: Why was it so important to share your personal experiences about growing up in Texas in the book?
Annette Gordon-Reed: I decided that I wanted to talk about these stories through the people of Texas and the relationships all these groups have: Indigenous people, African Americans, Europeans, Anglo Americans, and Latinos. I wanted to talk about growing up in Conroe as the first Black child going to a white school. The state of Texas promoted white supremacy and slavery brought a racial hierarchy. That hierarchy continued through Jim Crow, launching an attack on Jim Crow (Brown vs Board of Education) in my hometown. There was a connection between the past and my past.
BET.com: Who do you believe needs to read this book and why should people outside of Texas care about Juneteenth?
Annette Gordon-Reed: Everybody should read this book, particularly young people in Texas and people who care about and are interested in the history of the country. The process of emancipation was a milestone, and the end of slavery was an important step for Texas, human rights, and for this country. Juneteenth, as a holiday, promotes the hopes of the future of the people of that time. Juneteenth commemorates and celebrates those people who were enslaved. Now, there are schools and corporations giving people the day off. It means something.
Juneteenth takes place in the summer and is perfect for family holidays. Being a little kid, I remember celebrating Juneteenth with the kids in my neighborhood at my grandmother’s house, drinking red soda water, eating barbeque, and throwing firecrackers. Only Black people celebrated when I was growing up. It was a chance to see relatives for a day of getting together. As I got older, I remembered the importance of the day. My great grandmother knew someone who had been enslaved. We were not far from it. I think more about the meaning of that time as I’ve gotten older.
BET.com: You grew up in the segregated south and were the first Black person in your hometown to integrate schools. What was that experience like and how has that shaped your idea of race/racism today?
Annette Gordon-Reed: It was an intense time at the beginning. My first-grade teacher was wonderful to me. Some kids were nice, and some kids were not nice to me. I wondered why it was a big deal that I was going to school with white kids. I began to think about race early on and the meaning of it. Growing up we had separate waiting rooms at the doctor’s office, where the Black waiting rooms were not as nice as the white people’s waiting room. At the movies, we had to sit in the balcony separate from white people. I understood it was about race and the history of race and slavery, which is why I became a historian.
BET.com: And in your book, you talk about the history of Texas as a republic and speak on its declaration and constitution where slavery was legalized. How was the state of Texas significant or different to other states in the south during that time period and how do you think Texas stands on racism and equity today?
Annette Gordon-Reed: Texas was controversial because it was explicitly a slave state. People in Texas wanted to join the United States for protection against Mexico. The U.S. was dealing with slave states and free states. People in the north did not want Texas in the union because it was a slave state. There was a political battle in the United States about slavery and free labor in the country. Even people abroad were not pleased about the open notion and support of slavery.
Today the state is reacting to the growing voting power of its people and continued voter suppression has stopped that from happening. Nonetheless, the future looks good because of the young people who want a different world.
Photo courtesy of C. Tony Rinaldo