‘On Juneteenth’: A Black historian reflects on Texas and emancipation

Tony Rinaldo/W.W. Norton
In "On Juneteenth," Annette Gordon-Reed touches on the experiences of her family, which has lived in East Texas for generations.

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Historian Annette Gordon-Reed, who won a Pulitzer for “The Hemingses of Monticello,” has been drawn to stories that look beneath the surface.

Her latest book, “On Juneteenth,” functions as a clear portrait of the diversity and centuries-old history of Texas, which would have been powerful enough on its own. But the addition of her own narrative brings the text to life. She describes the difficulty of integration and assimilation into white culture that she experienced as a child when her parents enrolled her in an all-white school. She faced even more difficulties as she navigated her return to her Black neighborhood and interactions with other children of color. 

By sharing her experiences and those of her family, she shows the cost exacted by unjust systems. Yet she clearly feels a deep love for her home state.

Why We Wrote This

A historian is used to digging for facts, but what happens when the past involves her own family’s struggle against racism and Jim Crow laws in Texas?

“On Juneteenth” is a perfectly quilted work of American history framed by the stories of Black Americans in Texas. Through a mix of memoir, analysis, and seldom-shared stories, historian and Harvard law professor Annette Gordon-Reed stitches a clear image of the economic and political reality of slavery in the Lone Star State. She emphasizes the importance of Juneteenth – the anniversary of June 19, 1865 – the day that enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned they were emancipated.   

I have admired Gordon-Reed’s work since I read her pivotal and impeccably researched book “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. I thought I knew about Juneteenth until I read her latest book, which provides important historical context. So many contemporary celebrations of Juneteenth offer no real connection to the holiday’s roots. Gordon-Reed not only bridges that gap but adds a sense of urgency as she dives deeply into her own life – the story of a Black girl growing up in Texas.

Gordon-Reed discusses the actual events of that June day in 1865, when a Union officer came to Galveston to announce that slavery was over, at the end of her book. She notes that Juneteenth occurred more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but months before the ratification of the 13th Amendment. And she also records the cost of that freedom. Black Texans paid a high price at the time, enduring whippings and riots; in many ways, they are still paying today. As Gordon-Reed explains, those direct and relentless attacks continued after emancipation in the forms of segregation, Jim Crow laws, and other deeply embedded forms of racism.

Why We Wrote This

A historian is used to digging for facts, but what happens when the past involves her own family’s struggle against racism and Jim Crow laws in Texas?

Gordon-Reed can attest to this from personal experience. She was raised under that shadow of racism. As she infuses memoir into her story, she effectively conveys that white supremacy and hatred are real – not some imaginary, academic construct. Before she researched it, she lived it. “The image of Texas,” she writes, “has a gender and a race: ‘Texas is a White man.’” 

Liveright
“On Juneteenth” by Annette Gordon-Reed, Liveright, 144 pp.

Her book functions as a clear portrait of the diversity and centuries-old history of Texas, which would have been powerful enough on its own. But the addition of her own narrative brings the text to life. She describes the difficulty of integration and assimilation into white culture that she experienced as a child when her parents enrolled her in an all-white school. She faced even more difficulties as she navigated her return to her Black neighborhood and interactions with other children of color. 

Gordon-Reed also delves into the topic of historical revisionism with a discussion of the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, a staple of Texas state history curricula. As a child, Parker was kidnapped from her white family and adopted by members of the Comanche; eventually, as an adult, she was recaptured by Texas Rangers and became an icon of settler culture. But Gordon-Reed dissects the story, picking apart popular narratives in pursuit of a truer understanding – much in the way she did with Sally Hemings and President Thomas Jefferson in “The Hemingses of Monticello.” This discussion of revisionism is particularly timely; the governor of Texas signed a law this week that bans books and curriculum that address racism and white supremacy, as well as limits teachers’ ability to discuss both those topics and current events. 

Gordon-Reed is a master researcher and a magnificent storyteller, and she avoids the use of heavy historical terminology. By sharing her experiences and those of her family, she shows the cost exacted by unjust systems. Yet she clearly feels a deep love for her home state. Her personal experience – that of a Black woman who loves Texas in spite of its checkered past – is the perfect gateway into this complex narrative. 

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