Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed combines personal memoir and history to present a moving portrait of enslavement and emancipation in Texas.
Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed offers a personal journey providing context for Juneteenth, the US national holiday commemorating June 19, 1865, when freedom for enslaved African-Americans arrived in Texas.
Gordon-Reed’s African-American family dates back to Texas enslavement and emancipation. Sharing family stories, she illuminates the horrors of enslavement and the injustices of segregation. One doorway to understanding a sweeping saga is through a single individual, and the author opens that door.
The law might say I could go to a school or into a store. But it could not ensure that I would be welcome when I came to these places.Annette Gordon-Reed
This New York Times bestseller – a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner – received uniformly ecstatic reviews. The Times‘ reviewer found that Gordon-Reed combined, “clarity with subtlety…revisiting her own experiences, questioning her own assumptions – and showing that historical understanding is a process, not an end point.” Kirkus Reviews called this book, “A concise personal and scholarly history that avoids academic jargon as it illuminates emotional truths.”
June 19, 1865
Gordon-Reed begins by possibly surprising readers. She notes that, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved African-Americans. However, news of their emancipation did not reach most African-Americans in Texas until June 19, 1865 – Juneteenth.
Texans have been in the forefront of trying to make Juneteenth a national holiday.Annette Gordon-Reed
The author explains that the Confederate Army fought in Texas until mid-May 1865, and that no one in authority read the formal order ending enslavement until after that. Texas’ recalcitrance in embracing Black equality exemplifies its position as the bellwether state for post-Civil War America.
Texans who had enslaved Blacks and been defeated in the Civil War turned on the freed people with a vengeance, seeking to maintain the control they had during slavery. Annette Gordon-Reed
Texas public schools, the author reveals, omit teaching enslavement history. Texans also celebrate Texas’s war of liberation against Mexico while generally ignoring the role enslaved people played in that conflict. Mexico disapproved of slavery, but white Texans, Gordon-Reed notes, sought the state’s independence to preserve enslavement and free labor.
The history she presents reveals East Texas as a center for buying and selling Black people well before Texas statehood. White mobs brutally murdered or lynched Black men between 1885 and 1941 in Conroe, Gordon-Reed’s hometown.
Segregate Texas Schools
Gordon-Reed attended all-Black Booker T. Washington School in Conroe from kindergarten through twelfth grade. In contrast, she notes Caucasians attended “white schools,” which had separate campuses for elementary, middle-school and high school.
Texas, perhaps more than any other state in the Union, lives in the public imagination as a place of extremes.Annette Gordon-Reed
Gordon-Reed’s elementary school experiences heightened her awareness of the role of race in her hometown and in Texas, where her family had lived for generations. Growing up, she encountered segregated doctors’ offices, movie theaters and stores.
Memories of lynchings and fear of violent attacks by Texas racists prompted the Black residents of Conroe to adhere to the informal rules of segregation, even after national laws mandated integration.
Popular narratives about the arrival of Africans in North America usually center on the year 1619, when approximately 20 Black enslaved people in shackles arrived with English settlers in Jamestown, Virginia. But as a child, Gordon-Reed learned about Esteban, a man of African descent, who traveled to Texas during the Spanish exploration, nearly 100 years prior to Jamestown. In the 1500s, this legendary Black explorer may have become the first Black man to step onto the shores of Galveston.
Gordon-Reed later discovered that other Blacks – some free, others enslaved – had arrived in the Americas with Spanish explorers some 300 years before slavery began in Texas.She discovered that free Black communities flourished throughout North America, including in St. Augustine, Florida, a territory that Spain owned prior to 1817.
Early free Black residents, Gordon-Reed teaches, were explorers, indentured servants or multilingual translators, with knowledge of Native American languages, French, Dutch, English or Spanish. The author uses her multicultural, multilingual portrait of Blacks’ positions in North America to contradict stereotypes that portray them as ignorant and uneducated.
Africans were all over the world, doing different things, having all kinds of experiences. Annette Gordon-Reed
Considering TV shows and movies, Gordon-Reed realized that Caucasian males dominated popular narratives about enslaved African-Americans and Native Americans. She finds that stories which emphasized the Caucasian viewpoint often oversimplified, ignored or erased the complexities and histories of Native Americans and African-Americans.
The author explains that US Army Gen. Gordon Granger read the announcement granting freedom to the enslaved in Galveston on the first Juneteenth, 1865.
Announcing the end of slavery would have been shocking enough. Stating that the former enslaved would now live in Texas on an equal plane of humanity with whites was on a different order of magnitude of shocking.Annette Gordon-Reed
Before the General made the official announcement, the author details, enslaved Black workers on the wharf heard rumors of emancipation.Fearful of angering Texas racists, Black residents held muted celebrations because the Texas Declaration of Independence separately codified the right of whites to own enslaved people and the proposed Republic of Texas constitution extended a welcome only to whites.
History Come Alive
Gordon-Reed does a masterful job of placing her segregated upbringing in the context of Texas’ long history of enslavement before the Emancipation Proclamation and institutionalized mistreatment of Blacks following emancipation. She weaves tales of her family into a tapestry including significant – if seldom discussed – Black figures from Texas history. And, she deftly uses Texas as a metaphor for the United States and its history of racism. Her conversational voice somehow makes the horrors she recounts all the more unforgettable. Engaged readers will find new, moving, valuable insights into United States’ and Texas’ history.
Annette Gordon-Reed also wrote The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, Race On Trial: Law and Justice in American History and Andrew Johnson. Other worthy books offering new views of America’s racial history include How The Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America by Clinton Smith, Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America 1619-2019 by Ibram X. Kendi and Forget The Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford.