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'On Juneteenth' Historian Examines The 'Hope' And 'Hostility' Toward Emancipation

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. June 19 will mark the 156th anniversary of Juneteenth, commemorating the day slavery was ended in Texas in 1865. Juneteenth is now a state holiday in Texas and seems to be on the way to becoming a national holiday. It's a holiday in conversation with July Fourth, which celebrates America gaining its independence, but enslaved people remained in bondage.

My guest, Annette Gordon-Reed, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Harvard professor who has written a new book called "On Juneteenth." It's part history, part memoir. She's from East Texas. 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 edited the book "Race On Trial: Law And Justice In American History."

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." 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, 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 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, to be plantation owners. And they wanted in slave 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 does 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 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, 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.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed. Her new book is called "On Juneteenth." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOMINIQUE FAUCHARD'S "OH FREEDOM")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 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 in Texas were freed June 19, 1865. The book is also about how central slavery is to the history of Texas.

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?

GORDON-REED: I don't.

GROSS: Did they come as enslaved people or did they come...

GORDON-REED: I think 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.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Pulitzer Prize winning historian and Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed. Her new book is called "On Juneteenth." I'm going to take a short break here, and then we'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DARRELL GRANT SONG, "FILS DU SOLEIL (FOR TONY WILLIAMS)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my 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 the enslaved people in Texas were freed - June 19, 1865. The book is also about how central slavery is to the history of Texas. She's a historian of slavery and the early American republic.

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 in 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: So they did this to make sure that, when the Supreme Court struck down the freedom of choice plan, that you would be in a good school.

GORDON-REED: That I would be in place, I would not have to move anywhere. Now, this is an explanation that came afterwards. I think my parents - I know my parents somewhat soured on integration. And so their reasoning for why they did that kind of changed over time, a different story over time about what this was all about. And it went from being something that - I don't think they wanted to appear too idealistic. And so they tried to make it sound like, oh, this is a practical thing to do, when I suspect from knowing them and knowing other things about them that they were idealistic about this. They thought that this was part of the civil rights movement and they were making a statement with this.

But when they became disillusioned with integration in our town, they switched the narrative, which is - for historians, it's wonderful looking at this, to think about the motivations of actors in the past, you know, how they switch, why they - you know, why they're doing things and the actions they take. But I think that happened with them.

GROSS: Why did your parents sour on integration?

GORDON-REED: Because I think they thought it was a one-way street, that - one of the things that happens that we don't talk about as much is that schools - when schools were integrated in many communities, Black teachers were taken out of the classroom. My mother remained as a teacher. She was a 10th-grade English teacher, and she remained in the classroom and was very talented and, you know, did lesson plans for the district and all that kind of thing. But many - in many communities, Black teachers were taken out of the classroom, and Black students lost them as role models.

GROSS: When you say taken out of the classroom, do you mean they were fired?

GORDON-REED: Yeah, yes, or moved into non-teaching positions, to administrative positions, things like that, to the library or whatever - things where they were not in the classroom teaching. So Black students didn't have role models. And it's important for white students to see Black teachers as leaders as well. And so they thought that this was - there's integration, but it's like Blackstone said about husband and wife. They became one, and the one was him. So it's - you know, it's - it wasn't reciprocity here where, you know, we're giving you our kids, but you won't give us your kids.

So they thought that that was a problem. There was a loss of a sense of community on the part of - I mean, they could see how the Black community responded to this. Many people hated losing Booker T. because it was a place where, you know, the teachers knew the students. They lived in the same community. They were sometimes their relatives. There was a connection. I mean, my teachers - my white teachers at Anderson were wonderful to me, but it wasn't the same. We didn't - we were Texans. We had things in common. But we had been separated by race. We'd been separated in communities. And it was a different feel to it, I think. So they didn't think that they got everything they bargained - you know, it wasn't as great as they thought it was going to be.

GROSS: You describe how you felt as a 6-year-old when you became this figure of controversy in your neighborhood because your parents were sending you to the white school. And a lot of people saw that as, like, a vote of no confidence in Booker T. and the Black school in the community. And what was it like for you to be controversial in both places? You were controversial in the white school because you were the only Black student. You were controversial in your own neighborhood because you were being sent by your parents to a white school even though your mother was a teacher in the Black school.

GORDON-REED: Well, it was weird because there were people who knew me, and I didn't know them. And there were people who were either positive - because, you know, I'm not saying all Black people felt this way. There were some people who were positive about this, thought it was a good thing, and there were some people who thought it was a bad thing. And all the way I describe the scene with this guy punching me repeatedly, and I didn't know who he was. So it was this weird thing where there are these people out there who don't like you and they know you, but you don't know them, and they're threatening to beat you up or hitting you or doing things because they think you have done something.

It was almost as if - they probably got the message garbled that somehow, you know, I had been the reason everything changed. You know, I was - when in fact, I was a - you know, I was a product of it. I didn't instigate it. I didn't instigate - I didn't make the courts, the Supreme Court, decide that the freedom of choice plan was a subterfuge and they had to, you know, integrate the schools, as they said, in 1954. But people acted as if I had done that. And a lot of kids got the message from their parents, I guess, that I was - you know, I was the reason for this, and they acted accordingly. So it was weird. I've always had this sense - the sense of being watched in some way and being judged by people you don't know. And that's always a - it's a strange feeling whether you're a kid or an adult.

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 when I would come home and on weekends and so forth, I would be in a Black community with other girls, other people who were friends. 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 - 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: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed. Her new book is called "On Juneteenth." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 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. And the history is not only of Juneteenth, which marks the day enslaved people in Texas were freed, June 19, 1865, the book is also about how central slavery is to the history of Texas.

You've written a couple of books related to the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, who was enslaved to Jefferson but was also his mistress. Can we call her that? I like - how would you describe the relationship? You've done so much research into this.

GORDON-REED: Well, people don't like the word mistress because it sounds like it's consensual and - although that's not necessarily the case if you're really looking at it. It's hard to say what it was. I mean, I - going on what she apparently told her son about all of this when she was in France, instead of opting for her freedom, she got Jefferson to promise that if she came back to Virginia with him, she would live a good life at Monticello and any children they had would be freed. And that's what happened. So that's all we really know. Once she comes back to Virginia, obviously, she's under his control. If she had any chance for freedom, it would have been in France. But she gave that up. So we don't really know. I mean, her descendants talk about how he felt about her, that he loved her, but they don't talk about her in relationship - what she thought about him. So this is mysterious. This is something that would be left to novelists and playwrights.

GROSS: So it sounds like you're resigned to never really learning (laughter) what she thought of him.

GORDON-REED: Well, no, yeah, because you don't - I mean, the only thing that we have that she did - well, there are two things. No. 1, she came back here with him. But that could be because, you know, her family was here and...

GROSS: Oh, and that she wanted her children to be free. This was like a bargain for them.

GORDON-REED: She wanted her children to be free, exactly, bargaining for them. And, I mean, the sort of - with the hope that the guy that she would be - this man would treat her OK. And I guess it's - that's sort of - that's always up in the air in those situations. And when he dies, she keeps some of his possessions to give to her children as heirlooms. So she wanted people to remember that connection, apparently, and that's why she tells this story. But we don't really know - in the absence of any statements from her, we don't know. And because she is - was totally under his control when she came back from France, it's hard to say. For him, it's hard for me to imagine that he could - a person could have a purely sexual attachment to someone for 38 years. That's - or, you know, 20 years is the span of her childbearing if you want to make it about sex. But those are sort of loose criteria.

GROSS: What do you consider some of your greatest contributions to the scholarship surrounding the relationship of Jefferson and Sally Hemings and what that relationship means, both for her and for one of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson?

GORDON-REED: Well, I think my greatest contribution is what I set out to do in the first book was to talk about the way people had written about it, the way historians had written about it, essentially saying that there was no evidence that this ever happened and going through person by person, passage by passage, explaining how they skipped over reasonable inferences to get to one that was comfortable to them, how they denied that this was even a possibility when there was much - how they ignored it when Jefferson's family said things that were obvious lies, treated it as if it was nevertheless credible. So it was not about - I think my greatest contribution is not about Tom and Sally had kids. It's this is how historians wrote about slavery and how they treated the stories of African American people because if you can't get this right, I mean, this is - you know, when you're thinking about enslaved people were the objects of oppression, we typically pay attention to them, those are the people that we pay attention to.

We don't spend our time trying to protect the people who are their oppressors. And that's what was happening. So I think that's my biggest contribution. And that can be applied in other contexts, not just about Tom and Sally and kids and whatever, but just in general, how you look - whose stories and whose interests are you paying attention to when you're writing history? And I think that's what I wanted to try to investigate and have people think about.

GROSS: So I'm going to confess here, I've been a little distracted for the past few minutes because I keep thinking, why did I use the word mistress with my first question about Sally Hemings' relationship with Thomas Jefferson? I mean, she was enslaved to him. I mean, I knew they had a long-term relationship, which is why I clumsily came up with that word. But that's - it's such a wrong word when somebody is basically the property of somebody else.

GORDON-REED: It's tough because, you know, I mean, he could sell - I mean, the only thing that's interesting about it is that once Martha married Tom, she couldn't refuse him sex either. The only thing he couldn't do would be to sell her. And that's a big deal. But it's a state of unfreedom that meant that, as I said, once she came back to the United States - in France, she, you know, was technically a free person. The way it happened is that you filed freedom suits, and every freedom suit that was filed in Paris in the 18th century was granted. And Jefferson basically said talking to another person, if a slave finds out that they're free here, then there's nothing we can do. So she really had - the cards were in her hands in France, and she was there with her brother, who's 26, was literate, had been trained as a chef, and they could have stayed. But once she comes back here, you're right. I mean, she's totally under his control.

GROSS: Did her brother stay in France or come back?

GORDON-REED: No, he came back. Jefferson frees him after he trained somebody to be a chef because he brought him over there to teach him how to be a chef. And he paid a lot of money for that. He trained in some of the best kitchens in Paris. And he's freed, and then he goes back. He apparently goes back and travels around Europe for a number of years. And he ends up - it's a sad story. He ends up killing himself. And that's something else we can't find out about. Jefferson hired a detective to find out what had happened, but what the guy said - the letter explaining what the guy said is no longer extant, so we'll probably never figure that one out either.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed. Her new book is called "On Juneteenth." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBEN FORD AND BILL EVANS' "PIXIES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 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. And the history is not only of Juneteenth, which marks the day enslaved people in Texas were freed, June 19, 1865, the book is also about how central slavery is to the history of Texas.

You mentioned in your new book about Juneteenth that, you know, American history is, like, really complicated.

GORDON-REED: Yeah.

GROSS: And, you know, the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson is probably another example of that. So you spoke a little earlier about the detachment you have to have when you were seen as this really controversial child because you were integrating a white school.

GORDON-REED: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: And do you feel a sense of detachment from the history that you're writing so that you can - I mean, do you try to see things from everybody's point of view, including, like, the white slave owner's point of view?

GORDON-REED: I try to see everything from people's points of view. I don't always endorse their points of view.

GROSS: Right. Right.

GORDON-REED: But I try to see - because I want to know what happened, you know? If I'm assuming wrong motivations, wrong thoughts, or attributing them to someone, then I'm not really figuring out what is going on here. See, I don't see any point in going to the library if I'm just going to come to the story with my own preconceived notions and my own preferred answers. It's a waste of time to go through all those documents if I don't learn anything from those documents and if I don't think about them.

So, yeah, I think detachment is important. I mean, there are times when I've looked at slave records going through Jefferson's farm book or letters, and he's talking about this. And I remember one time working on the Hemings, I just sort of broke down and cried in my office thinking about a woman who had been separated from her children because they were old enough. They were, like, 10 and 12. And I thought about my kids and how they would feel if I were just down the street from them, you know? These kids were not taken far away from their mom. But the idea that 10 and 12 would be enough to be separated from your family was just very upsetting to me. So there are moments when the detachment - I mean, don't feel detached from it. But in the main, I try to see things from as many perspectives that are in the particular story or the issue that I'm writing about.

GROSS: I want to end the interview by going back to Juneteenth, which is the subject of your new book. Juneteenth is a Texas holiday. It's a state holiday - right? - now. What would it take for it to become a national holiday?

GORDON-REED: Well, Congress would have to accept it, and people would have to think that it was important enough, central enough, to the United States. And apparently, I think that there may be three states now who don't have some form of recognition of it. So it seems to be on its way. I know that there are people who have other candidates - maybe Emancipation Proclamation, maybe January 1, maybe what we said before about the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December. But we'll see what happens with it.

GROSS: 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.

GROSS: Annette Gordon-Reed's new book is called "On Juneteenth." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Yusef Salaam, one of five men who were convicted as teenagers, then exonerated, in the Central Park jogger case. Their story was dramatized in the Netflix series "When They See Us." Salaam reflects on his experience in his new memoir, "Better, Not Bitter: Living On Purpose In The Pursuit Of Racial Justice." I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

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