The emotional importance of Juneteenth, as told by Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning historian and Texas native Annette Gordon-Reed.
The events celebrated each Juneteenth (June 19) took place in Galveston, TX, in 1865. It’s been an officially celebrated state holiday in Texas since 1980. So why is Juneteenth having its national moment now?
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk with Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award- winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed, the author of On Juneteenth.
The Texas native, and descendant of slaves, talks about what the holiday meant to her growing up, and how it shaped her sense of history and led her to her current work as a historian. She shares her story of being the first to integrate a white school and why the current moment cries out for reassessing the traditional “Remember the Alamo” Texas mythology.
She explains how the early slave- and race-based economy of Texas defined the conflict-filled era of its independence from Mexico in 1836, and its status as a slave-holding republic before joining the US as the 28th state in 1845.
She talks of the fleeting time — after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and before the failure of Reconstruction in 1877 — when the hope for racial justice, even in Texas, seemed possible.
Stories of cowboys, ranchers, and oilmen have long dominated the lore of the Lone Star State. Gordon-Reed gives us a new and close-to-the-bone narrative of her home state, with implications for us all.
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Jeff: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Perhaps one of the many cleavages within our society today is how we view the past. On the one hand, we have whole swaths of sometimes well-meaning people who think the world simply started anew upon their entry in it. For them, historical context is when it exists at all, a kind of mythological origin story. For others, it’s only about the past, about grievance and anger, or the over-reliance on the mythology of so-called great men.
The reality, of course, lies somewhere in the middle, and the overarching way to get there is usually through an understanding of people, heroes, and villains with all their flaws and foibles. Secondly, by looking deeply, and how one’s life has been impacted by that history, directly and indirectly, by that historical context, understanding real people of the past and looking at the direct impact on us seems to be the true road to historical understanding.
That’s what my guest, Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed, has done in her new book, On Juneteenth,though best known as the Pulitzer- and National Book Award-winning historian and the author of the Hemings of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed is also a Texas native, a descendant of Texas slaves, for whom the story of Juneteenth has a very special resonance. It is my pleasure to welcome Annette Gordon-Reed here to talk about On Juneteenth. Annette, thanks so much for joining us.
Annette: I’m very happy to be here.
Jeff: Well, it’s an honor to have you here. I want to first of all talk about Juneteenth as a holiday, an occasion really, because it’s been celebrated for a long time; Texas, in fact, became a holiday I think back in 1980. Why is it having particular resonance today? Why is it having its moment right now?
Annette: Well, really, that’s an interesting question. I think it really started last year. I read somewhere that this was a peak time on social media for people asking about it and talking about it. I think it’s related to, and people have attributed to this, and I think I agree with it, the conversation that was started around the murder of George Floyd. People began to think about how we got to this place, where did all of this come from, the divisions and racial divisions.
Juneteenth was around, this is in June, and here was a holiday that talked about the end of slavery, and people made the association between the racial hierarchy that exists in the country and slavery. I think that holiday, being circulated a lot on social media, people talking about race, talking about history, increased the visibility of it and increased the importance of it and that hit a peak, a fever pitch, over the last year and a half talking about this holiday. Then of course, now becoming a federal holiday.
Jeff: How has it played out differently, if at all, in Texas, where these events took place, and where there’s a really very specific history, that you write brilliantly about it, a very specific history about this day?
Annette: I think that from what I’ve been able to tell, people are very happy about it. There were a number of Texans who have been campaigning for this for quite some time, preparing for this for some time. This is the culmination, for that group of people, of something that they wanted for many years. I talk a little bit in the book about my ambivalence about the celebration, not that it’d be a national holiday, but when I first learned that people outside of Texas were celebrating it, it was kind of puzzling to me.
I felt a sense of possessiveness about it, but that only lasted a while, I got over that. I realized that it is something worth celebrating just generally, not just among Texans, but I grew up with it as a thing that Black Texans did. Then it became a holiday for all Texans. This is just a different incarnation of it, and it took some getting used to, but I did get used to it.
Jeff: Talk about what you knew about the holiday, how you dealt with it growing up, your first knowledge of it, and how you processed it over the years.
Annette: Well, I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t know about the holiday. It’s Juneteenth, and now we do the things that we do. We have the celebration. I don’t recall talking about it or being prepared for it in any way in school. Obviously, we were out of school by the time the holiday rolled around, but there could have been, as there are now, sections where people talk about it, but it was a holiday that was carried forward by the Black community and it’s always been there.
People have asked me this before when I first learned, but it’s just memories of being a kid, memories that you have as a kid doing a thing, just as we celebrated Halloween, just as we had Christmas, and Easter, all of those holidays. This was just the day in the calendar, where we had this moment where members of the community came together, family came together, special food, and just the day of a family and celebration.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about Texas and its special place in this story, because Texas is almost a character unto itself in the way you write On Juneteenth.
Annette: The holiday has obviously had its origins in Texas because General Granger comes there on June 19th, 1865, to basically take control of Texas, the Confederate Army. The army of the trans-Mississippi had finally surrendered at the beginning of June and the last holdouts, and he comes and makes this announcement with the idea of transforming this particular place; not only does he say that slavery was over, but that enslaved people would occupy a place of absolute equality with their former enslavers, which he didn’t have to say but you could imagine how people heard those words. The enslaved Blacks heard it one way, and a number of whites heard it another way.
It continued to fuel their anger about the loss of the war, the loss of enslaved people as property, and now this idea, this guy is saying they’re going to be equal. There was a celebration in Texas, among Blacks, but there was also hostility among a lot of whites. I read accounts of people who were whipped for celebrating, and owners who refused to let people off plantations, used violence to keep people in place.
It was not entirely a clean process outside of Galveston where the troops were, wherever there were Union troops, the order could be enforced. General Order No. 3, which is what it was, could be enforced, but there were not enough soldiers to make sure that that happened all throughout the places where it would have been necessary. It’s a very Texas-oriented story, fighting to the end, there with the Confederacy and a final capitulation. Then, recalcitrance in the face of the effort to remake the society after the end of slavery.
Jeff: And part of it also was that the Union Army never took control of Texas really.
Annette: Right. They actually won the last battle of the Civil War outside of Brownsville. From their perspective, they gave up because they knew the entire war effort was not going to be successful, but there was still a sense of having been not defeated. That recalcitrance that I talked about showed itself in the way they responded to General Order No. 3, with violence in a lot of ways and trying to keep as much as they could, try to keep enslaved people in place.
Jeff: How did that play out six months later, after the 13th Amendment was ratified?
Annette: Well, it continued, it was a continuation of this. When Reconstruction begins in earnest, there is an improvement in the situation of many Blacks. They actually become involved in party politics, they’re elected officials as in other parts of the South. It looks like it’s on its way to the beginnings of, I don’t want to make this sound too rosy, but the beginnings of a multiracial that this was going to be possible.
Then, of course, the Reconstruction ends, and the redemption governments come in, and the troops are removed from the South. Then, they began a process of trying to bring things back as near to slavery as possible, without actually holding Black people as chattel, striking against voting rights. One of the most moving things that I found working on this book was a list of voter registration lists and seeing my great, great grandfather’s name on this list in 1867. You think about a person, the kind of hopes that he must have had for that time, and then to know that a decade and a lot more than a decade after that, all of this has gone, and they enter a period of real repression until the civil rights movement of the ‘60s begins to make a change.
Jeff: The other backdrop of this, which I think people are perhaps not fully understanding of with respect to Texas, is Texas was a place that really said the quiet parts out loud, that the very founding of the Texas Republic was as a slaveholding Republic.
Annette: Absolutely. It’s an interesting thing that’s going on down there now with something called Project 1836, which refers to the year that Texas became a republic. The United States Constitution kind of hides slavery, you know what they’re talking about, persons held to service in the sort of genteel Virginia in a revolutionary kind of way of saying this. Obviously, they’re talking about slaves, but the Texas Republic is full-throated in its protection of slavery, and they felt they had to do that.
They left Mexico because Mexico had abolished slavery, but given them a sort of special dispensation, but they would never really secure in that, and there were other issues that they had with the Mexican government, but this is a big one, this was a big part of all of it. They leave Mexico because of this, and so they’re going to make sure that it’s clear and that this is what we believe in. It’s explicit about protecting slavery and it’s explicit in talking about people of color, African American people can’t become citizens, free Blacks can’t immigrate there and stay there unless they have permission of the government, which probably wouldn’t be given. They’re saying all of these things to be clear about their stance so that there’s no mistake about it. It was a place that was founded on this.
Stephen F. Austin, the father of Texas, was given the right by the Mexican government to have a development, bringing Anglo settlers into Texas, and Austin is very clear that this experiment is not going to work without slavery. They exist within the Mexican government under the Mexican flag, as I said, somewhat insecurely because of this issue of slavery, but once they get the Republic, there’s no question about what they stand for.
Jeff: It becomes an issue later with the whole idea of Texas being brought into the Union.
Annette: Yes. Part of the move, there were people who genuinely wanted a Texas Republic and wanted to be alone, but there are other people who saw this as a first step towards annexation, and then a next step towards being a part of the Union. It was controversial because this was the beginning of the sectional crisis, and the battle between slave states and free states. A number of people didn’t want Texas in the Union at the Slaveholder’s Republic to come into the Union and upset the balance between slave states and free states.
Texas has been controversial from the very, very beginning, and controversial, specifically because of the question of slavery, which was racially based. The idea that we just discovered, or people just discovered race as a topic is ridiculous. People in the 18th and the 19th century talked about race quite a bit. They made it the subject of their laws, they put it in a constitution. There’s no way to talk about this stuff. I’m really mystified about how people are supposed to talk about this history without talking about that because it’s explicitly there in the documents.
Jeff: The other aspect of Texas that you talk about it in a personal way, in terms of the various groups in Texas, is that there was also a certain amount of diversity there during this period.
Annette: Yes, that’s another thing that distinguishes Texas. It didn’t have to become diverse. It was that way from the beginning. If you think of all of the first nation people who were there, indigenous people, the different groups who were there, then the Spanish, the Hispanic culture, Latino culture, then there are Anglo people of English origin and German origin as well, so there are whites, and people of African descent. You have all these groups there together from the very, very beginning.
I say in the book that, all of the major currents of American life go through Texas, the Westward Expansion, the conflict between European settlers and Native people, plantation slavery, Jim Crow, the yearning to be a republic, actually being a republic, it borders a foreign country, and so immigration is a question, the Hispanic-Anglo conflict or relationship. All of those things are in this one state. There is no other state that has all of those. They have some of them, but not all of them in one place, and that’s why it’s a very volatile land.
Jeff: Yet in the founding mythology of Texas, in the remember the Alamo movie-like mythology, all of this gets lost.
Annette: Yes, in favor of another part of Texas. Texas as part of the Southwest. I’m not making the claim that the West isn’t important in Texas, but it’s held the imagination, a little larger in the imagination of people about Texas than the reality that most people in Texas have lived in the eastern part of Texas, the heaviest concentration of population, and that’s where they built a plantation society.
When people think of Texas, they think of the West, Cowboys, or alternatively, oilman, although actually the first oil strikes in Texas were in East Texas, not far from where I grew up. West Texas is what people, Permian Basin, and even more West, is what people think of as Texas. Both of those things allow you to avoid talking about the plantation society and the racial hierarchy that was created because of it.
Jeff: You write in On Juneteeth a very personal story as well, your connection to this history that we have been talking about. Talk in a broader sense about the idea of understanding history through this sense of personal connection, a way to give context, much greater context, not only to understanding history but the people that made it, with all their foibles and, and heroism sometimes.
Annette: Well, I get at this at one of the beginning chapters, one of the first chapters of the book talking about my town, Conroe, TX. I was born in a town called Livingston, TX. When I was about six months old, my family moved to Conroe. Conroe has a very difficult history on the question of race. It was a place where there were lynchings — this is not unique; there are other towns in Texas that had this, but just specifically my town — lynchings, a man was burned at the stake on Courthouse Square in the 1920s. A man, who was alleged to have raped a white woman, was murdered in open court by her husband with no repercussions whatsoever.
Lots of things happen in the town that gave it a history that was troublesome, and the sort of reverberations of that continued on. I first had occasion to come into knowledge about this or to feel the effects of this when I integrated our town schools when I was six years old. The town had been, and as many jurisdictions had been trying to avoid browns for over a decade and came up with something called the freedom of choice plan, which meant that what everybody expected, white parents to choose white school and Black parents to choose Black school.
Well, my parents decided to send me to a white school, sort of upsetting that. I had the chance to experience— It was a historic thing for the town, but it happened against the backdrop of the history that I’m talking about before of a town that had very clear racial lines and a very clear understandings about the way race was supposed to be lived in this place. I integrated our schools. I wasn’t escorted, a la Ruby Bridges or the Little Rock Nine.
The idea was that I would just go, and it would be as if it were normal, but it was not totally normal. That whole experience made me think about well, why is this? Why is this a big deal that I’m going to this school? Why is it when I go to the movies, we have to sit in the balcony, or when I go to the doctor, there are two separate waiting rooms, there are waiting rooms for whites and Blacks? Our waiting room is small, and their waiting room is much bigger and much more well-appointed than ours.
Thinking about these things, I think in some ways, certainly made me interested in history and probably contributed to my becoming a historian, but I felt the weight of all of the history of the town during those years, even as I had what I take to be a very happy childhood. It was a small town, but when you’re a kid and you have your parents and your brothers and you’re secure, and all of that works, all of the other things, they’re extraneous to that. I feel for people who, if you didn’t have that, those basis, how you would operate in the world.
I don’t want to make it sound like this was a terrible childhood, it was a good childhood when I was small there and when I was integrating the school, it was intense. There were good moments and bad moments, but overall, I think the whole experience did make me think about how we are all part of history. We are living the results of history on an everyday basis. Other people could do this, could write a memoir, write a story about their hometown and their state and how decisions that were made in history affected them personally.
Jeff: The other part of that, the corollary of that, is this idea that history is not preordained, that it is as a result of choices that people make.
Annette: Absolutely. Nothing had to happen the way it happened, but once it does happen, you’re putting things in motion. I think that’s really important. I was thinking about the controversy now in Texas and other places about teaching about race and class.
The thinking is that white children will be upset if they learn what white people in the past did, some of the things they did. Of course, they’ll learn good things and bad things. I don’t think kids are stupid. Kids are, I think smart enough. We have to trust them enough to understand that they know that there’s good and there’s bad, but it’s an interesting idea because they could learn. They would learn that you don’t have to do this.
The lesson is exactly, I think, could be the opposite of what people are concerned about to think that somehow, if you talk about the past, the things that people did in the past, and you’re white, you have to continue having those feelings. You have to continue doing those kinds of things. When instead, the better answer is to say, I can make a different choice. We can go down a different road. That always has to be kept in mind.
Jeff: Part of it is that it has gotten twisted over the years. You’ve talked about this, the idea that in order to appreciate something or to appreciate patriotism or your state or your country, that somehow there has to be perfection.
Annette: Exactly. You can’t be critical. You can never say anything that would cast a negative light on something that you profess to love. I say this in the book. To me, real love would demand that you have a critique of people. You have to be careful. You have to be careful about how you do that. It’s worthwhile to be fair in the way you do these things. You can’t make up things. You can’t say anything, just any old thing. You have to find some way to say things that allow the person and you to explain what you’re talking about and to make a change. You have to make a correction.
That’s what you want to do. It isn’t just about saying, I love you, I love you. If you have kids and you think they’re always right, the teacher’s always wrong. The kids or their friends are always wrong. That’s not love, that’s cowardice in some ways. It’s self-indulgent. It isn’t what a country needs to be told that every single thing the people in that country do is right or everything they did in the past was right when we know that that’s not true. It’s being confident and have to move with confidence in talking with people about the past.
Jeff: What’s so interesting is people seem to be capable of doing this in their personal lives that they can, most of the time, make that distinction, and yet when it comes to these broader issues, it seems to all fall apart.
Annette: People think of the country. That’s a good point. Almost as a refuge is as a country, it’s a team. They’re constantly thinking of the idea, what happens if somebody attacks us? We have to be ready. We don’t really have that view in our personal lives. When you’re thinking about the country, there’s this defense. That’s why people are willing, some people, not me, but some people are willing to spend endless amounts of money on defense, but not for things that are internal things that would be helpful to people because we’re always worrying about the other, those people who’re going to come and attack us.
I think there’s this notion that you always have to have a united front for a country that we don’t have in our individual lives, but that’s not the way it is. Obviously, we want to defend the country, but it shouldn’t be a total state of paranoia that suggests to you that any kind of critique— Because the thing is that doesn’t even provide for a great defense if you’re not honest about your weaknesses and places that could be exploited. One of the things that happened when people surmise is that people who are enemies of the United States understand that we have a racial problem and have used that in some ways, in some of this information to play upon racial divisions, to try to make us weaker.
Jeff: Annette Gordon-Reed, her new book is On Juneteenth. I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Annette: Thank you for having me. It was a lot of fun.
Jeff: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.