Professor Examines View Of History Over Different Generations

CHAUTAUQUA — Moments of change may create a backlash.

Talking to an Amphitheater audience Tuesday at Chautauqua Institution on the theme of “The Future of History,” Annette Gordon-Reed shared her views on how the way United States citizens honor their history can change from generation to generation.

Gordon-Reed, according to assembly.chq.org, has won 16 book prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2009 and the National Book Award in 2008, for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, which was a Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection in 2009. Other works include Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy; Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History; and, with Peter S. Onuf, Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination.

Her most recent book is On Juneteenth.

Originally, she did not plan to write a book about Juneteenth. She said one thing she has learned about book publishing is an author never knows what world a book will enter.

“When it’s published, you start out in one place, and when the book comes out, you’re in another place,” she said.

Juneteenth which is short for “June Nineteenth” marks the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people be freed. The troops’ arrival came a full two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth honors the end to slavery in the United States and is considered the longest-running African American holiday. On June 17, 2021, it officially became a federal holiday, according to history.com

As a Black child, in Texas, she celebrated Juneteenth, and she said in the past 10 years, she noticed that other people were celebrating the day, and she didn’t understand why others celebrated.

Soon she did.

“I realized that this was an advance in human rights and we should all celebrate advances in human rights. And so it’s a day that belongs to everybody,” she added.

Now that Juneteenth is a federal holiday, there is an opportunity to change the narrative and think about what can be done to move things forward, she noted. Also, she said, current efforts to tamp down how history is taught in public schools is not the answer. Some people view the situation as a threatening one, and there begins the backlash against history and public schools.

Banning books also is not the answer, she said. Public libraries need to remain open. To her, public libraries are a place of freedom.

“The public library to me was an oasis when I was growing up,” Gordon-Reed said. “That’s where I spent time. That’s where I learned, you know, what was possible in the world.”

She referenced Ruby Bridges, who, integrated schools in New Orleans. Gordon-Reed talked about her similar experience integrating Anderson Elementary School in Conroe, Texas.

It was supposed to be normal.

“It wasn’t totally normal. It was it was a strange situation because I was the only Black person there. And I was on display very much people coming to stand in the doorway and look to see this thing this, you know, the situation with a black child in a school with, you know, 20 in a class with 20 or 25 other white students so I knew it was not normal. And I understood by the way, people responded to me and the way they talked about this, that it wasn’t a normal situation,” she said about the backlash.

That experience made her understand the importance of history, and she said may have led her to become interested in history, and in law. During the mid 1960s she understood her parents were in the middle of movement, and she said, her parents saw themselves as part of that movement. She understood what her parents did sending her to Anderson Elementary School.

“It was a courageous thing to do,” she said. “They obviously had some degree of faith in me that it can be done. And they had faith that it would work out. And it did work out. There were moments that were not great.”

She said during that time, her elementary school teachers were wonderful and very supportive. Her mother was a teacher in another school, and Gordon-Reed wondered if that influenced how she was treated because of possible teacher-to-teacher courtesy.

“Some of the kids were OK. Some of them were not,” she said. “As we should know that when there are moments of change, there’s backlash.”

Gordon-Reed is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard University, where her areas of interest include American legal history, assembly.chq.or said. Gordon-Reed was the Vyvyan Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History at the University of Oxford (Queens College) 2014-2015. Between 2010 and 2015, she was the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

She was the 2018-2019 president of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. A selected list of her honors includes a fellowship from the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, a Guggenheim Fellowship in the humanities, a MacArthur Fellowship, the National Humanities Medal, the National Book Award, the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, the George Washington Book Prize, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Gordon-Reed was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011 and was a member of the Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. In 2019, she was elected as a member of the American Philosophical Society. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School.

Gordon-Reed keeps an optimistic view. She said she keeps her heart and mind open, having faith that history informs the present and gives hope for the future.


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