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Annette Gordon-Reed: We Must Grapple With Thomas Jefferson’s Contradictions

Pulitzer Prize–winning writer, 64, speaks about researching — and living — America’s history


spinner image Annette Gordon-Reed, who wrote one of the key books on the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, at the New York Historical Society in Manhattan, Sept. 9, 2008
Annette Gordon-Reed at the New York Historical Society in Manhattan.​​
NICOLE BENGIVENO/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

Annette Gordon-Reed, 64, a history professor at Harvard University Law School, won a Pulitzer Prize for History in 2009 for her book about the Hemings family. AARP spoke to Gordon-Reed about her exploration of American history.

You won a Pulitzer Prize for your book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. How did you become interested in Thomas Jefferson and the Hemingses?

My third grade classroom had a little library with a set of biographies of famous people like George Washington Carver, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Dolley Madison. Jefferson was the most interesting to me, because he loved to read, and I loved ​to read, and he wrote the Declaration of Independence — but he was a slave owner. This was the first I had read about slavery. It was a child’s biography, so it was not very sophisticated, but it sparked an interest.

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What do you want people to understand about the Hemingses, beyond that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’ children?

They were not just enslaved people. That was the institution that bound their lives, but they were mothers, fathers, cousins, sisters, aunts, friends. They had different personalities, different ways of going through the world. It’s just that their opportunities were severely circumscribed because of slavery. So I want them to be seen as individual human beings.

Do you think history needs to change the view of Thomas Jefferson?

I understand how people would not want to have something named for Jefferson. But I think we have to grapple with him, because he embodies to me the contradictions of this country, the good things and the bad things. Members of the founding generation, of which Jefferson was one, have to be a part of our conversation. If there are statues and things named for them, it’s an opportunity to talk about the way this country was born — and it wasn’t born in just a good and wonderful way. It was born in turmoil and conflict. ... I just don’t think we can excise the parts [of history] that are less than favorable, because they helped make us who we are today.

Your latest book, On Juneteenth, is about that holiday’s history. Can you explain?

It commemorates the day on June 19, 1865, when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger came to Galveston, Texas, and announced that slavery was no longer legal in Texas. It’s a holiday that Black Texans have been celebrating since 1865, and when they moved to other places, they took the holiday with them.

What does it mean for your Texas family?

I recall my great-grandmother telling me how important the day was in our family. I got the impression they had celebrated the holiday for as long as she could remember. She was born in the 1880s.

Does anything make you optimistic about race relations right now?

Young people. They are more sensitive to the issues involving race and the history of this country. Their generation has grown up thinking that there has been a problem, and it’s a problem that we have to deal with. There are some people who [want to] shut down talking about history, but I think young people seem to be resisting that.

What’s your next project?

I’m doing a second volume of the Hemings family story, during and in the aftermath of the Civil War. And I’m thinking about writing something about Galveston, which was the seat of a lot of Black progress, and I’d like to find out more about it.

In 1964, you were the first child in your hometown of Conroe, Texas, to integrate a segregated school. What was that like?

It was intense. I didn’t have the sophistication to know all the ways in which it was a big deal, but I did know it was a big deal for a Black child to go to a white school. I grew up where we had separate waiting rooms at the doctor’s office, and when we went to the movies, Black people sat in the balcony. I understood I was breaking a barrier.

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A new school in Conroe was recently named in your honor (Annette Gordon-Reed Elementary School). What would your parents have thought?

When they grew up in the South, the only Black people who got their names on things were Booker T. Washington, Frederick Doug­lass — people of that nature. I think they would have marveled at how far the area had come to be able to do that.

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