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In ‘On Juneteenth,’ author Annette Gordon-Reed explores how Texas’ history shaped her life

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: On this first federal Juneteenth holiday, author and historian Annette Gordon-Reed talks to Jeffrey Brown and explains the importance of this date through her personal history.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Narrator: This is Texas, mighty colossus of the Southwest.

Jeffrey Brown: The 1956 film "Giant." Historian Annette Gordon-Reed sees the legend of her native state of Texas, the oilman, along with cowboys and ranchers. But from its founding as a republic, she says, there was always another Texas.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED, Harvard University: There's this vague sense that slavery was there, but not that it was something that was embedded, that that was a reason -- that was a big part of the republic. We're very proud of the Texas Republic, but the Texas Republic was a slaveholders republic, unabashedly, and there's no way around that.

It's in the constitution of the republic. And so that part of it gets hidden. And if you don't have that component, you really can't understand what's going on in Texas.

Jeffrey Brown: One of the country's preeminent historians, Gordon-Reed teaches at Harvard Law School. She's best known for bringing to light the life of Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who bore children to her owner, Thomas Jefferson.

Gordon-Reed's 2008 book "The Hemingses of Monticello" won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.

At Boston's Museum of African American History recently, we talked of her new book, "On Juneteenth," a mix of Texas history and personal memoir, writing in a way that was new to her.

Did it feel strange to you?

Annette Gordon-Reed: It felt very strange.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes?

Annette Gordon-Reed: It was difficult to do, because I have spent years writing about other people's families, and sort of standing outside of a figure like Jefferson and being detached from that, and the Hemingses, too, as a matter of fact.

Any subject, any other person's life that you write about, you have a -- there's a disconnect. But, here, I'm talking about myself.

Jeffrey Brown: But you and your family are now part of the story, which, in fact, you are, right?

Annette Gordon-Reed: Yes. Yes.

And that was an interesting thing to think about how historical events actually shape your life. I mean, we're all part of history. We're not all famous. We're not a Jefferson or a Washington or Booker T. Washington or whatever.

But in our lives, history shapes what happens to us. And what I try to do in the book is to show how that affected -- the things that happened before Juneteenth, on Juneteenth, and afterwards affected my family and my life.

Jeffrey Brown: And as you write, slavery itself was just, I think your term is a blink of an eye away, from that generation.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Yes, absolutely.

My great-grandmother's mother had been enslaved as a child. And she was freed by her father, who is the owner at the same -- as well. So, I knew people who knew enslaved people. It's not very far in our past at all.

Jeffrey Brown: On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger announced the end of legalized slavery in Texas, months after the end of the Civil War.

It became a day to celebrate for Black Americans. Annette Gordon-Reed remembers it from her own childhood.

Annette Gordon-Reed: It was a day where we got to drink a lot of what we called soda water.

Jeffrey Brown: Soda water?

(LAUGHTER)

Annette Gordon-Reed: Which is basically soda pop, which is -- we didn't have every day then. So, it was a special holiday kind of thing.

Jeffrey Brown: She grew up in the town of Conroe, in a part of East Texas that experienced the continuing legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

She herself was the first Black child to integrate her town's so-called white school. She was taught to remember the Alamo and its heroes, as in the 1960 film, only later learning the full story of those who fought for independence from Mexico.

I mean, in that case, as you write, some of the heroes were slave owners, and the very thing they were defending included slavery.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Yes.

So, it's tough, because we human beings apparently need mythology. We talk about it and historians talk about it sometimes in pejorative terms, but this is something that we actually need. And we have to find some way, I think, to keep the ideals, the sort of ideals about fighting for what you believe in and all that on one hand, but be realistic about what actually was going on there.

Jeffrey Brown: It's the same approach she's taken to founding fathers like Jefferson: Honor the contribution, while being clear about the failings and contradictions.

Annette Gordon-Reed: I can't tell anybody else how to think about it. All I can do is make the argument, and say that there are some people who are central to the formation of the nation, and you can't pretend that they didn't exist.

The words in the Declaration of Independence have inspired people all over the world. But if you have Jefferson there, you have to talk about all of it, right? You have to talk about his entire life and the good things and the bad things.

Jeffrey Brown: There's something you write a few times, so I -- it feels like it was important to you. And you write it in different ways. Things and events didn't have to happen the way they did. A different path could have been taken.

Do you feel that people generally have a false sense of history, that things sort of had to happen a certain way?

Annette Gordon-Reed: Yes, I think people do have that feeling. And that's one of the things that historians try to disabuse students of, that they're choices that people make.

They made the choice to have Texas as a slaveholders republic. They made a choice to say, OK, slavery is over and -- they could have said, I should say, slavery is over. Now we're going to incorporate these people who have worked here, worked among us, and are as much a part of this land as we are, and we're going to go forward in a different way.

But they didn't make that decision. There was recalcitrance. And they fought. And those were choices. So, I think that's empowering. To me, I think it's empowering, because it means that we can make choices.

Jeffrey Brown: Texas made Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980. Many states, cities, and institutions came to recognize it as an official day of observance.

And now, with this week's votes by the Senate and House, plus President Biden's signature, June 19 becomes Juneteenth, a national holiday.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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