Annette Gordon-Reed is an historian and University Professor at Harvard, and 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 casually — things that made more sense as Reed started to research her own family history in Texas. Her findings are documented in a new book entitled, 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 afterwards. 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," says Gordon-Reed.
“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 continue in the right direction.”
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: We're not divorced from that time period, from Juneteenth in 1865 and what happened afterwards. I mean, 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.
BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: Hey, everyone. Welcome to Unmuted. I'm Brittany Jones-Cooper, and today, I'm chatting with historian and Harvard University professor Annette Gordon-Reed. Reed won the Pulitzer Prize for history, and her new book On Juneteenth lends her personal story with the complex history of Texas. You write about integrating your elementary school. What do you remember about that pioneering experience?
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Well, I remember the intensity of it. There were people who would come to the door, sort of observe what was going on because there was a Black kid in this class, and it was an experiment. And so I knew I was kind of on display. I had to learn later on that there were some threats against my family. My parents were doing things that they thought would advance the ball on the question of race.
BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: Incredibly courageous, and it sounds like strategic in providing opportunities for you but also protecting you. So many people are learning about Juneteenth for the first time. How do you explain the significance of Juneteenth?
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: For me, the significance is that we don't really have another day that so many people recognize and reflect upon the end of slavery in the United States. My great-grandmother knew someone intimately who had been in that institution. Her mother had been born enslaved, and she had been freed as a child. I got a sense of what that day meant to people who had learned that they were free after Juneteenth.
It's significant because there should be a day when we think about that, we reflect upon their joy at that particular moment, even though they knew things weren't going to be perfect even after slavery was over. Just a decade later, 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. So it's a day to think about that. And I think that should be done on a national level.
BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: Last year, Juneteenth was trending on Google. And there is a push to make it a national holiday now. Do you have any fear that it will become just hyper-commercialized like so many other holidays are?
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: There's almost nothing that Americans can't make commercial. But it was the end of slavery was a momentous and a positive thing in the United States of America, and it shouldn't go unmarked.
BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: Yeah, I think it's also important to think about the people and the spirit that they had, the survival. That's what I try to remember on that day is that I come from this lineage of survivors who had the spirit that got us to this day.
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Exactly. It's worthwhile to go back and think about the hope that these people had, and think of what we're doing to have those hopes fulfilled, what we can do to make sure that the struggle, that this journey, continues in the right direction.
BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: I want to thank you, Annette, for joining us today and sharing your knowledge.
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Thank you for having me. This was wonderful.