For history junkies who enjoy watching that kind of programming on C-SPAN3, Annette Gordon-Reed is a rock star.
She’s been on that network more than three dozen times since 1997 talking about Thomas Jefferson, slavery and other race-related issues. Her first book, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy,” pointed the finger at Jefferson and the intimate relationship he had with one of his slaves, and a decade later Gordon-Reed’s 2008 book, “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” earned her the Pulitzer Prize for History.
Currently the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard University, Gordon-Reed will add another credential to her impressive resume Tuesday night when she receives The Empire State Archives History Award, joining the ranks of other such notables as historians David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin and actors Richard Dreyfuss and Sam Waterston. Abraham Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, another winner of the Archives History Award, will sit down for a conversation with Gordon-Reed Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the The University Club at 141 Washington Ave.in Albany.
A native of Livingston, Texas, about 75 miles northeast of Houston, Gordon-Reed was on MSNBC earlier this month talking about her new book, “On Juneteenth,” part history and part memoir about the holiday celebrating June 19, 1865, when slaves in Texas were told by Union General Gordon Granger that they were free.
She left the American southwest to attend Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and then went on to Harvard Law School, graduating from there in 1984. She spent time as an attorney in New York City, working for the Board of Corrections, and taught at New York Law School from 1992-2010 before getting a teaching position at Harvard.
Along with her work on Jefferson, the Hemings family and Juneteenth, Gordon-Reed has produced books on Andrew Johnson and civil rights activist and Bill Clinton advisor Vernon Jordan.
Her work has earned her more than 15 awards, including the National Book Award, The George Washington Book Prize, the Frederick Douglass Prize and the National Humanities Medal in 2010, presented to her by President Barack Obama.
She says she’s always had a love for history, sparked by reading Fawn Brodie’s 1974 book, “Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History,” and Winthrop D. Jordan’s “White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812,” published in 1969.
Tickets are still available for the in-person event at $30 and virtually for $20. For more information visit the web site at www.nysarchivestrust.org.
Q: Why did you want to write a book about Juneteenth?
A: My book editor had been encouraging me to do something on Texas for a number of years, and I thought this would be the time to do it. I wrote it during the pandemic. I wanted to write something about the time when our own schools were being integrating and also talk about the history of Texas and Juneteenth. It’s also about the road to Juneteenth, the development of slavery in Texas and the aftermath, including Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. I was stuck inside most of the time, thinking about my family and my past life, so it all kind of came together under these strange circumstances.
Q: Did you always want to be a writer?
A: I knew I always wanted to do something that involved writing, ever since I was a kid. I ended up going to law school because I thought that was the more practical thing to do, rather than being a novelist or a journalist. The law involved writing, but not really the kind of writing I wanted to do. Eventually, I did get around to exactly the kind of writing I was always thinking about.
Q: Did you come from an academic family?
A: My mom was an English teacher, and both of my parents loved to read. We always had books in the house about history, literature and nature. I’ll always remember my mother reading to us and emphasizing how important reading and books were.
Q: How does your 1997 book about Jefferson and Hemings differ from your 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning work about the Hemings family?
A: My first book was more analytical, looking at how historians had written about the topic. My second book is more of a narrative, more of a family story about the Hemingses.
Q: You received criticism from some Jefferson descendants for your 1997 book, which put the spotlight on their ancestor’s sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. Were you expecting that kind of response.
A: I got a lot of pushback on that first book, but actually not as much as I was expecting. I anticipated that I was going to get quite a lot when I was writing it, and it wasn’t that bad. I got some, and I still get some, but the DNA testing came out a year after my book did, and it kind of corraborated what I was saying. It doesn’t usually happen that science will weigh in on a historical topic, but when that happened it kind of tamped down a lot of pushback.
Q: What’s your opinion of Thomas Jefferson?
A: I like him as a subject. He’s endlessly fascinating. There’s a lot to admire about him, and there’s a lot about him that I don’t admire. He’s fascinating because he’s one of the largest figures in American history. There’s nobody who occupied the space in the public imagination for as long as he did. So there are times when I like him and times when I don’t. He’s a mixed bag, just like all of us.
Q: Why did you write a book about Andrew Johnson?
A: I worked with Arthur Schlesinger, he was the editor of the Thomas Jefferson Papers, and he asked me to do it. It was part of a series and it was a short book. He became president at an interesting time, after Lincoln’s death, and being president at that moment put him in a tough position, which he didn’t fill very well. He was interesting but it isn’t like writing about Jefferson where you have a lot of ways to approach the subject. Johnson is much more one dimensional. There are not a lot facets to him.
Q: What was your reaction to the New York Times’ “The 1619 Project,” which drew some criticism from a handful of prominent historians?
A: ‘1619’ is very important for talking about what kind of society existed at the time. In 1776 all the colonies had slavery. Some were slave societies, in the South, while in the North, as they put it, they had slaves. But it’s been a problem from the very beginning. … 1776 is the beginning of the American dilemma about slavery. That’s when Thomas Jefferson declares that all men are created equal. But what does that mean in a society where you have enslaved people? That’s when the real dilemma starts. In 1619 there wouldn’t have been any dilemma. Number one, there was no United States, and number two, the English really didn’t have any qualms about slavery. ‘1619’ explains the cultural context. … 1776 is when the dilemma starts, and we’ve been talking about it ever since.
Q: Did winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 change your life?
A: Well, I was pretty well established by then, but it does change your life. Every time you see your name in the newspaper, Pulitzer Prize is there. It’s like it’s an appendage to my name.
Empire State Archives and History Award
2005 – Brian Lamb, C-SPAN host.
2006 – Sam Waterston, actor.
2007 – Doris Kearns Goodwin, author.
2008 – Michael Beschloss, author.
2009 – Henry Louis Gates, author.
2010 – Richard Dreyfuss, actor.
2011 – Robert Caro, author.
2012 – Ken Burns, filmmaker.
2013 – James McPherson, author.
2014 – No winner selected.
2015 – David McCullough, author.
2016 – Ron Chernow, author.
2017 – Harold Holzer, author.
2018 – Stephen Lang, actor.
2019 – No winner selected.
2020 – No winner selected.
2021 – Annette Gordon-Reed, author.
More from The Daily Gazette: