Historian Annette Gordon-Reed on why Juneteenth should be a national celebration: 'It shouldn't go unmarked'

Annette Gordon-Reed doesn’t have to read a history book to understand the importance of Juneteenth. The Texas native grew up hearing stories from her family.

“My great-grandmother knew people who had been enslaved, and her connection to that gave her some connection to what that day meant to people who had learned that they were free after June 19, 1865,” Gordon-Reed tells Yahoo Life.

Juneteenth marks the day when all enslaved people in the United States were officially emancipated. While the Emancipation Proclamation outlawed slavery in 1863, it took more than two years for slaves in the Confederate state of Texas to learn about their freedom.

Gordon-Reed, who is a historian and a professor at Harvard University, remembers her great-grandmother sharing the story of how her mother was born into slavery and freed as a child. Gordon-Reed also remembers the oral histories that her own grandmother shared — things that made more sense as she started to research her own family history in Texas. Her findings are documented in a new book, On Juneteenth, which is part history and part memoir about the importance of that day in Texas.

“We’re not divorced from that time period from Juneteenth in 1865 and what happened afterward. The hope that there would be equality was there, but we know from the very beginning, it was met with a backlash and it’s a backlash that seems to be still going on today,” says Gordon-Reed.

In On Juneteenth, Gordon-Reed writes about the formerly enslaved and the hope they carried after being emancipated. They had joy in their freedom, despite the reality that their struggle was far from over.

“To know that just a decade later with the end of reconstruction, redemption governments would come in and they would limit black voting and initiate an era of Jim Crow that lasted until the 1960s. And that links to me, to my story,” she says.

Protesters with the Unite NY Juneteenth 2020 organization (Photo: Getty Images)
Members of the Unite N.Y. organization. (Getty Images)

In 1965, 100 years after Juneteenth, Gordon-Reed became the first Black student to integrate her all-white elementary school in Conroe, Texas. She was in the first grade. In preparation, her aunt went shopping at a department store in Houston called Sakowitz and bought Gordon-Reed new dresses, hats and stockings. Reed says her aunt went overboard because she understood that her niece was “going on a mission.”

“I remember the intensity of it,” says Gordon-Reed. “I remember the fact that there were people who would come to the door of our classroom and stand in the doorway — sort of observe what was going on because there was a Black kid in this class. It was an experiment. And so I knew I was kind of on display.”

Gordon-Reed notes the spirit of social justice during the 1960s, and her parents’ desire to advance the ball in terms of race. Still, integrating could be dangerous work, and Gordon-Reed’s family had to navigate negativity from the surrounding community. “I learned later on that there were some threats against my family. Of course, they wouldn’t have told me about that, but I’m sure there were probably people watching, making sure that nothing got out of hand,” says Gordon-Reed.

Now that Juneteenth is on the brink of becoming a federal holiday, Gordon-Reed is encouraged as more Americans are learning about the importance of the celebration.

“There is almost nothing that Americans can’t make commercial,” says Gordon-Reed. “But it was the end of slavery, it was a momentous and a positive thing in the United States of America, and it shouldn’t go unmarked.

“It’s worthwhile to go back and think about the hope that these people had and think about what we’re doing to have those hopes fulfilled. What we can do to make sure that the struggles of this journey continues in the right direction,” she says.

— Produced by Jacquie Cosgrove

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