Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Annette Gordon-Reed’s New Book, ‘On Juneteenth’ Examines The Holiday Through A Personal Lens

On Tuesday, the Senate unanimously passed a bill establishing June 19 as “Juneteenth National Independence Day”, a U.S. holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. Juneteenth is the day in 1865 when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce the abolition of slavery and the end of the Civil War. That came two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Now, the distinguished historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Annette Gordon-Reed, has written a new book called “On Juneteenth.” In it, she looks at history through the medium of a memoir from a Texan’s point-of-view of the long road to Juneteenth, what happened afterward, and how that influenced life in Texas for both her family and her own.” Harvard professor Gordon-Reed joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes to talk about her book and the origins of this holiday.

Interview Highlights:

Why origin stories are important for individuals, as well as nations:

“We like to know where we came from. Thinking about where we came from gives us some sense of who we are. We think that that is a part of our basic identity. I think that it is true to a great extent, but we can always go in a different direction..but we look to that to have our bearings of our own personalities and the country does that as well,” said Gordon-Reed.

She continued, “Just think about the mountains of books about the founding generation of America and what they mean to us, how we should view, the battle over how we should view them, and the same holds true for Texas as well. And if you have an origin story that doesn’t get it right, or leaves out significant parts, there’s a danger that you may have certain misunderstandings about the place that you are considering or even yourself. You have to know as near the truth as possible about how things got started to help get your bearings and understand where you  might go in the future.”

How growing up in Texas influenced her work as a historian:

“Growing up in Texas made me think about the past because the results of the past, the legacies of the past, were all around me. I began life in a town that was still segregated. I was born in Livingston, Texas, which was segregated, and then when I was about six months old, moved to Conroy, Texas, where I grew up. I had the experience as a six-year-old of integrating our town’s schools, it made me think about why that was a big deal. You know, what is the big deal of people of different colors going to school together and why would that have been a problem? And when we went to the doctor, why was there a separate waiting room for Black people and white people? When we went to the movies, we had to sit in the balcony. What was that all about? People to me were people and why were these divisions there?” Gordon-Reed recollected.

She continued, “I do think it was my first opportunity to think about how the past informs the present. And that led me on a road to becoming a historian I believe.”

How her family’s stories showcase the importance of Juneteenth:

“I think that these stories tell us that we’re all a part of history in some way. Everybody can tell their family history through the history of where their family lived and its connections to the larger United States. Focusing on this particular moment in history, about the end of slavery in Texas, invites us to think about what was a major advance in human rights. Not just in the history of Texas or the history of the United States, but the idea of ending legalized chattel slavery is something that should be commemorated. It’s something that we should all think about and the ways in which that day and what happened afterward have helped to shape all of us because we are the sum total of all of this,” said Gordon-Reed.

She continued, “By making it a family story and talking not just about my family, but talking about my family in a way that allows us to talk about Texas in general and Texas as a representative of the United States of America, it tells us something about the nation.”