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'On Juneteenth' historian examines the hope and hostility toward emancipation


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Sunday marks the holiday of Juneteenth, commemorating the day the abolition of slavery was announced in Texas on June 19, 1865. Texas was the last state to free enslaved people. Juneteenth is now a national holiday, observed just a couple of weeks before July 4, which celebrates America gaining its independence while enslaved people remained in bondage. Our guest, Annette Gordon-Reed, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Harvard professor who's written a book called "On Juneteenth." It's part history, part memoir. She's from east Texas, and she's a historian of slavery and the early American republic. Her other books include "Thomas Jefferson And Sally Hemings: An American Controversy" and "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family." She also edited the book "Race On Trial: Law And Justice In American History." Terry Gross spoke with Annette Gordon-Reed last year, when her book was published.


TERRY GROSS: Annette Gordon-Reed, welcome to FRESH AIR. I learned a lot that I'm really happy I learned from your new book. So let me ask you to give a fuller version of what Juneteenth represents.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Well, Juneteenth represents the end of slavery - technically the end of slavery in Texas in 1865. And it has been a day to commemorate what we know - and we know from the way they acted - the joy of people who were enslaved in Texas when they heard the news that slavery was over and being treated as chattel - those days were behind them and they were supposed to be - then go forward as equal people in the place where they lived.

GROSS: So how does June 19, 1865, fit in to the end of slavery, the abolition of slavery in the U.S.?

GORDON-REED: Well, it was - emancipation was a process. There was not any one day that made everything OK, made it all over until we get to the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which was in December of 1865. But what happens in Texas is there was a delay from when the Emancipation Proclamation was put forth and when Lee surrendered at Appomattox in April of 1865. The Army of the Trans-Mississippi kept fighting. And the last battle of the Civil War was in Texas, and actually, the Confederates won. But it was at that time that Gordon Granger was able to go to Texas, go to Galveston and make this announcement that slavery was over in the largest state of the union. So it's - it was a part of the process of emancipation.

GROSS: So we'll get a little deeper into the history later in the interview. But first, I want to talk with you a little bit about how the holiday has been celebrated in your family. How was it celebrated when you were growing up?

GORDON-REED: Well, it was sort of a precursor to July Fourth. It was a day of barbecuing. It was a day for us kids to run around and drink a lot of what we call soda water, which means soda pop, I guess, in the Northeast, they say, and throw firecrackers. And we were with our friends and with our families. And it was time sometimes to go on picnics. So it was a celebration. It was a, you know, a day when adults came and sometimes took the day off and shared it with us. So it was sort of like, you know, a windup to July Fourth, but it was mainly celebrated by Black people when I was growing up.

GROSS: When you were growing up and your family celebrated Juneteenth, did they also talk with you about the meaning of Juneteenth?

GORDON-REED: Yes, sometimes they did, and I asked about it. My great-grandmother was alive until I was about 11 years old. And I wish I talked to her more about these things, but she talked about what it meant to people to have slavery ended. Her mother had been enslaved as a young girl and had been freed by her father, along with her mother. So she knew someone who had been enslaved. And her mother had married a man who was enslaved until the end of, you know, the Civil War. So this was very, very close to us. This is not very far in the past at all. And she talked about what it meant and said that it meant a lot to people. The day meant a lot. Even though there were still struggles afterwards, the day meant a great deal to them.

GROSS: Do you see Juneteenth as being in conversation with July Fourth?

GORDON-REED: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It reminds people that the sort of vaulting and high ideals of the Declaration of Independence about equality, the equality of mankind were not in operation and that it took war and Civil War amendments to bring all of this to fruition. And we're still working on it right now. But you think about the two of them together, and we thought about the two of them together.

GROSS: Let's get into some of the history. Texas didn't surrender in the Civil War until two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Why did Texas continue to fight even after Robert E. Lee surrendered?

GORDON-REED: I guess you could put it to stubbornness. I talk a little bit in the book about Texas' unique situation. It had been a republic, its own republic, for almost a decade and thought of itself as special. They had not been defeated, you know, in battle in the Civil War. And they thought they had a chance to do it. The state was founded. The area first is a territory. All of this was founded as a slaveholder's republic. And they kept fighting because they believed that this was vital to their future. And they had been successful in the battles and decided to keep going with it. But it was mainly the sort of stubbornness of Texans that in some ways people see as a positive thing but in that situation was not so great.

GROSS: So a U.S. Army general, Gordon Granger, was given the job of getting Texas to announce that slaved - enslaved people were now free - and not only to announce it, but to actually enact it. So Granger prepared what was called General Order No. 3, ending legalized slavery in Texas. Would you describe what's in General Order No. 3?

GORDON-REED: Well, it's not a very long document. It just announces the end of slavery. And he does something that is quite extraordinary. He also suggests that now, after the end of slavery, the people who had been enslaved would occupy - and I'm paraphrasing here - the sort of same plane of equality with their former enslavers. And so he really didn't have to say that. He could've just said, you know, the slaves are now free. Slavery is over, and that's it. But he begins to talk about what life would be like after that.

And he raised, obviously, expectations on the part of enslaved people, but he also enraged whites, who began to think, you know, what is this? We held these people as chattel before, and now he's saying that they're going to be equal to us. And I think that's interesting because it harkens back to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. And Lincoln was very much enamored of the Declaration of Independence and saw it as sort of expressing the ideals of America. So we see echoes of Lincoln, echoes of Jefferson's declaration, the American Declaration, in this order in its focus on the notion of equality going forward.

GROSS: Yeah, I want to quote from it 'cause it declares "absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves." I'm - that upset a lot of white people. There was a wave of white violence afterwards. What was that wave of violence like?

GORDON-REED: Well, there are stories about people who celebrated, were celebrating what they called the Jubilee or Emancipation Day before it was - it became Juneteenth. And they were whipped. They were whipped for doing it. They were punished for doing it. So it was a time of being very hopeful and excitement on the part of one group of people, but resentment and recalcitrance on the part of many whites.

Now, there were whites who - obviously, the army went around Galveston and then in the outlying areas, wherever they could, you know, saying this and making this - the story known. But for the most part, it was a very, very tense time - hope and, at the same time, hostility.

GROSS: You know, you point out that in pop culture, the images of Texas are all about, like, cowboys and ranchers and farmers and oilmen. But Texas was - at least part of Texas was all about plantations and enslaved people. And I didn't realize how much of Texas' deep history was about making sure that slavery could be legal. So let's go back to a very early chapter in Texas when Stephen Austin, who was born in Virginia and raised in Missouri, came to Texas when it was a province of Mexico. What did he want to do in Texas? Why did he come to Texas?

GORDON-REED: Well, he - it started out with his father, Moses, who passed away, and he sort of took up the mantle of his father. They wanted to bring settlers, Anglo settlers, into Texas to extend the cotton empire that was becoming more important to the economy. During that time, Texas had great land for that, for cotton and for sugarcane, which became the real crops of that time.

And Mexico had, really, an ambivalent attitude about slavery. At one point, they had outlawed slavery. They were pretty lenient with the Texas settlers on this question. But there was - they were equivocating on this point. And because these were people who had - were coming from Alabama - white people who were coming from Alabama and Georgia, from, you know, the southeast, coming to this place, they wanted to make sure that their property rights in enslaved people would be protected.

So there was always this insecurity about being with the Mexicans and the Mexican government that might, at some point, decide that they were going to turn on them on this question of slavery. So, yeah, it - the people who came to East Texas, the most populous part of the state, were there to be farmers and to be plantation owners. And they wanted enslaved labor to make this work.

GROSS: So at the time, Stephen Austin - and Austin, Texas, is named after him. So at the time he comes to Texas, Texas is a province of Mexico?

GORDON-REED: It is a province of Mexico.

GROSS: So what did that mean? What was the relationship of Texas and Mexico?

GORDON-REED: Well, it's like a state of - like we have states today. It was a state in Mexico. There was a Mexican government control. Mexican law was paramount. And they wanted Anglo settlers to sort of balance out the competition with Indigenous people who were there. The Comanche were fighting, you know, to preserve their land. And they thought that Anglo settlers would come, and they would sort of join the fight and be on their side.

So at first, they welcomed them. The Mexicans welcomed Anglo settlers for this reason, so that they could have more people to - you know, to play against the Comanches and Apaches and others who were Indigenous people who were in that area. So it was friendly at first.

But when Mexicans began to - they changed the Constitution. They suspended the Constitution at one point and began to make noises about slavery. The Texans - or Texians, as they were called - decided that it would be better off if they were a republic on their own, if they could just go on their own and continue to bring settlers in, Anglo settlers, turn it into a cotton empire so that it would be as prosperous as places like Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were, and Georgia, growing cotton.

GROSS: So when Mexico starts to turn against slavery, that's when the leaders of Texas decided, we should become independent to preserve slavery.

GORDON-REED: Yes, to - that was one of the things, preserving slavery, but also concerns about the Constitution, changing other aspects of the Constitution. These were two different cultures, different languages, you know, that were spoken. And there was tension. Slavery was a big part of it, but there were other tensions as well about who would rule. And the Texians wanted to be on their own.

DAVIES: Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed speaking with Terry Gross. Her book is called "On Juneteenth." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed. Her new book is called "On Juneteenth." It's part memoir, part history not only of Juneteenth, which marks the day enslaved people were freed in Texas, but also of the centrality of slavery to the history of Texas.


GROSS: Your family has deep roots in Texas. Your father's side of the family came to Texas sometime in the 1860s. Do you know whether that was before or after the Civil War?


GROSS: Did they come as enslaved people? Or did they come...

GORDON-REED: I think they came - they came as enslaved people. They came - my father's family came as enslaved people. On my mother's side, I can go back to the 1820s. And those were certainly enslaved people who were brought to Texas from Georgia in one case and Alabama another.

GROSS: Did they pass any stories - pass on any stories about the wave of violence after Texas was forced to free enslaved people?

GORDON-REED: No, they did not. My - the stories that I heard were more about the 20th century examples of violence, things that had happened specifically to people they knew or in their specific area. There was no question that we understood that the Klan had a long history and nightriders and so forth. But enough horrific things happened in the 20th century that they fixated on those things much more so than in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

GROSS: What's one of the stories they told you about people they knew who were attacked by whites in the 20th century? And what impact did it have on you to hear these horrifying stories?

GORDON-REED: Well, they told a story about - well, a couple of stories, one about a man who was burned at the stake on the courthouse square in Conroe, Texas, in the 1920s, the story of Bob White - this was in the '30s - who was shot in a courtroom in front of the judge and the jury and law enforcement officials and an audience of dozens of people because - for - he had - accused of raping a white woman and had been tortured and beaten by the Texas Rangers in a case that went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which I didn't know until I was working on this book. And the court said that this was a violation of due process, to tie a person to a tree and beat them until they confess. And they sent it back for a new trial.

And during that trial, the husband of the woman who was allegedly raped shot him, shot Bob White in the back of the head and killed him, but then, you know, after a brief trial, was acquitted and - for murder. And he had murdered people in full view of everyone. And that really broke, I think, people's spirits because there likely was hope when the case kept going through different appeals. And then when the Supreme Court said that this was a violation of due process, they may have thought that they were going to get some kind of justice here because the story in the Black community - and my grandfather had said he knew both of these people and - the woman who said she was raped and her husband and Bob White - that they had been having an affair. And when this was found out, it turned into a story about rape.

So there were two competing narratives in this story. But after this murder and he was let go, people in my family would not even come to visit Conroe anymore. They wouldn't spend the night there because it was seen as too dangerous.

GROSS: But you grew up in Conroe, so I guess some of your family came back?

GORDON-REED: Oh, yes, I grew up in Conroe. These were other members of my family who wouldn't spend the night at our house (laughter) because they were frightened of being in Conroe with its terrible reputation. But we moved there when I was an infant. I was born in Livingston, which is even deeper into East Texas and a little bit northeast of Conroe. And I grew up there. And I have to say, this is the paradox. I thought it was a great place to grow up during that time period. I had a good community and my mother and my father and my brothers. And so I - these things were in the background.

That's the tough thing about the South. It sort of exists with this - there's a comfort level that I had growing up, but there's always the possibility of danger. And we were on the cusp of integration. And when I went to the movies, I sat in the balcony with other Blacks. When I went to the doctor, we had separate waiting rooms. And so all of that was there. But when you're a little kid, you think about your family, you know, and jump rope and Tootsie Rolls and going to school and making friends. You're not - I did know that there was a racial problem. I understood race very early on in my life. But it was just - it was sort of the background noise that was there. You're used to it, and you don't see it as some looming threat all the time, even though it was, in some ways, a threat.

DAVIES: Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed speaking with Terry GROSS. Her book is on Juneteenth. We'll hear more after a break. Also, we remember character actor Philip Baker Hall, who's probably best known for his roles in Paul Thomas Anderson's early films and for his now-classic role as a hard-boiled library cop on "Seinfeld." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's interview recorded last year with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed. Her book is "On Juneteenth." It's part memoir, part history not only of Juneteenth, which marks the day enslaved people in Texas were freed, June 19, 1865, but also of the centrality of slavery to the history of Texas.

GROSS: So you grew up in the 1960s. So you were going to school after the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Board of Ed, which said that, you know, schools had to be equal, and therefore segregation of schools had to end. But Texas found a way to get around Brown v. the Board of Ed with something called the freedom of choice plan. What was that plan? - 'cause that plan was in effect when you started to go to school.

GORDON-REED: So the freedom of choice plan, which other states adopted as well, was a way around Brown because what they said was white parents are now free to choose the schools that they want to send their kids to, and they would send them to white schools. And Black parents would do likewise. They would pick Black schools. My parents decided to send me to a white school, that that would be their choice. I had gone to school at Booker T. Washington, which was a K-12, the school for Blacks in Conroe, where my mother taught. My older brothers were in Booker T. as well. But they wanted to send me to Anderson Elementary School, which was a white school. And that sort of upset the balance of things, unlike Ruby Bridges and other people that people may know of. But she's probably the most famous, the first Black child to desegregate schools.

My father took me to school and dropped me off. I was unescorted. The idea was to - I think the - my parents talked and the school district talked about this to say - not to make a big deal about it, that I would just go and as if nothing were out of the ordinary. And I would just start school. And that's what I did, even though, obviously, it was out of the ordinary. And occasionally there would be delegations of people who would kind of come and stand in the doorway and look at the scene, one Black child with the other 20 and 25 kids.

So I knew it was a big deal. But they decided that this was the thing to do because they figured that the court was going to strike down the freedom of choice plans, and they did. The Supreme Court did in 1968. And then everybody had to switch schools. The Black kids then had to be dispersed throughout the schools. And I was already where - I was already in place when that happened.

GROSS: How did the end of the Freedom of Choice Plan and the beginning of the integration of schools in your community affect your actual schooling and who you went to school with?

GORDON-REED: Well, as I got to be older, I ran into something called tracking. I was a good student. And I was tracked into what we called accelerated classes. And I was pretty much separated from Black students for, you know, most - for all of high school. I can only think of a class where I had maybe one other Black person in my classes.

GROSS: What was it like to be singled out as exceptional, which separated you from other Black students?

GORDON-REED: It was tough, you know? It was tough. The one saving grace is that I lived in a Black community and I had Black friends in that community, even though we didn't - when we went to school, we weren't in classes together. But it was odd because you're - being detached and separated out is something that I'm sort of used to doing. And it might - I'm psychoanalyzing myself. Maybe that accounts for the detachment I'm able to bring to some of the projects and things that I do. Standing outside of things has been, you know, a part of what I've done from the time that I was little because of the circumstances of how I went to school and where I went to school.

GROSS: I want to end the interview by going back to Juneteenth, which is the subject of your new book. How important to you is it to have a national holiday that recognizes the emancipation of slaves?

GORDON-REED: I think it's very important. My father used to joke - I don't know how much he was joking. He would say, the slaves haven't been freed. What he was talking about is that there's still a long struggle for African Americans. He knows that there were - there have been advances and progress and so forth.

But I think there ought to be a day to remember what it must have felt like for people who had been treated as property, who feared more than anything the loss of relatives and family members because they were seen as property through sale, through inheritance, the normal operations of the property system, that they lived under the vagaries of all of that. And there was great joy and a great sense of release and a great sense of hope that existed in those people. And I think one of the ways we can honor that would be to have a day to think about and reflect on what their circumstances were like and what they hoped would happen in the future for their descendants.

GROSS: Annette Gordon-Reed, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you for so much enlightening information about American history.

GORDON-REED: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed speaking with Terry Gross last year. Her book is called "On Juneteenth." Coming up, we remember character actor Philip Baker Hall. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN DENNY'S "HARLEM NOCTURNE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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