On Juneteenth

Annette Gordon-Reed

Book - 2021

""It is staggering that there is no date commemorating the end of slavery in the United States." -Annette Gordon-Reed. The essential, sweeping story of Juneteenth's integral importance to American history, as told by a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Texas native. Interweaving American history, dramatic family chronicle, and searing episodes of memoir, Annette Gordon-Reed, the descendant of enslaved people brought to Texas in the 1850s, recounts the origins of Juneteenth and explores the legacies of the holiday that remain with us. From the earliest presence of black people in Texas-in the 1500s, well before enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown-to the day in Galveston on June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger ...announced the end of slavery, Gordon-Reed's insightful and inspiring essays present the saga of a "frontier" peopled by Native Americans, Anglos, Tejanos, and Blacks that became a slaveholder's republic. Reworking the "Alamo" framework, Gordon-Reed shows that the slave-and race-based economy not only defined this fractious era of Texas independence, but precipitated the Mexican-American War and the resulting Civil War. A commemoration of Juneteenth and the fraught legacies of slavery that still persist, On Juneteenth is stark reminder that the fight for equality is ongoing"--

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New York, NY : Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc [2021]
Main Author
Annette Gordon-Reed (author)
First edition
Physical Description
148 pages ; 20 cm
Includes bibliographical references.
  • Preface
  • Chapter 1. "This, Then, Is Texas"
  • Chapter 2. A Texas Town
  • Chapter 3. Origin Stories: Africans in Texas
  • Chapter 4. People of the Past and the Present
  • Chapter 5. Remember the Alamo
  • Chapter 6. On Juneteenth
  • Coda
  • Acknowledgments
  • Books and Articles Consulted
Review by Booklist Review

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon-Reed grew up both proudly African American and Texan, and was well aware of the contradictions since the symbolic Texan cowboy is safely white and apart from slavery. Yet this conception of the rugged independent Texan unsullied by Confederate racism is a myth: the primary motivation for Texas' rebellion against Mexico was not to preserve "freedom" but to maintain slavery. Gordon-Reed points out that Texas' original constitution, though modeled on that of the U.S., notably omitted "All men are created equal," and specifically forbade emancipation while barring free Blacks from entering the state. The emancipation announcement on June 19, 1865, which asserted Black equality as well as freedom, was met with white outrage and violence. While Texas has long been a multiracial blend of European, Mexican, African American, and Native cultures, "the interests of the men most credited with envisioning Texas and bringing it into being were most often antithetical to the interests of people of color who occupied the same space and time with them." As Juneteenth morphs from a primarily Texan celebration of African American freedom to a proposed national holiday, Gordon-Reed urges Texans and all Americans to reflect critically on this tangled history. A remarkable meditation on the history and folk mythology of Texas from an African American perspective.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Pulitzer-winner Gordon-Reed (The Hemingses of Monticello) interweaves history, politics, and memoir in these immersive and well-informed essays reflecting on the history of Juneteenth. She places the story of June 19, 1865, the day (two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation) when African Americans in Galveston, Tex., learned they were free, in the context of the bargain struck between settler Stephen F. Austin and the Mexican government in the 1820s to allow chattel slavery in what became east Texas, and notes that after winning independence from Mexico in 1836, Texans pushed for annexation into the U.S. in order to protect themselves from the rising tide of abolitionism. Gordon-Reed also describes the "oddity of being on display" as the first student to integrate schools in her hometown of Conroe, sketches the history of Indigenous peoples in the region, and discusses the story behind the song "The Yellow Rose of Texas," which was based on a (likely false) legend that Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna lost the Battle of San Jacinto because he was "distracted" by a "beautiful woman of color" spying for the Texas revolutionaries. Despite the thorny racial history, Gordon-Reed expresses a deep fondness for her native state, writing that "love does not require taking an uncritical stance toward the object of one's affections." This brisk history lesson entertains and enlightens. (May)

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Review by Library Journal Review

With this book of five essays, Gordon-Reed (known for her landmark research on Sally Hemings) examines her own past and family, and interrogates what it means to her to be a Black Texan. Starting with her story of being the first Black child to integrate her local school in Conroe, TX, Gordon-Reed reveals the history of lynching and terror inflicted on her family and their neighbors, which haunts them still. She reminds us that Estebanico, a Black Muslim man from Morocco, arrived in present-day Texas a century before the landmark year 1619 that we often recognize as the start of slavery in the U.S. She also examines the role of slavery in luring whites to eventually establish the state of Texas. Gordon-Reed recalls the cultural artifacts that inflected her own youth (the Alamo, Billy Jack, Six Flags over Texas, and the Yellow Rose of Texas, for example) and uncovers their hidden histories of race. Her stories about her family's Juneteenth celebrations show that the holiday is uniquely Texan, even as it has now spread across the nation. VERDICT This beautifully written memoir makes the case that the history of Black Texas is central to the history of the United States. Gordon-Reed's writing will move all readers of U.S. history.--Kate Stewart, Tucson

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

The Harvard historian and Texas native demonstrates what the holiday means to her and to the rest of the nation. Initially celebrated primarily by Black Texans, Juneteenth refers to June 19, 1865, when a Union general arrived in Galveston to proclaim the end of slavery with the defeat of the Confederacy. If only history were that simple. In her latest, Gordon-Reed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and numerous other honors, describes how Whites raged and committed violence against celebratory Blacks as racism in Texas and across the country continued to spread through segregation, Jim Crow laws, and separate-but-equal rationalizations. As Gordon-Reed amply shows in this smooth combination of memoir, essay, and history, such racism is by no means a thing of the past, even as Juneteenth has come to be celebrated by all of Texas and throughout the U.S. The Galveston announcement, notes the author, came well after the Emancipation Proclamation but before the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Though Gordon-Reed writes fondly of her native state, especially the strong familial ties and sense of community, she acknowledges her challenges as a woman of color in a state where "the image of Texas has a gender and a race: "Texas is a White man." The author astutely explores "what that means for everyone who lives in Texas and is not a White man." With all of its diversity and geographic expanse, Texas also has a singular history--as part of Mexico, as its own republic from 1836 to 1846, and as a place that "has connections to people of African descent that go back centuries." All of this provides context for the uniqueness of this historical moment, which Gordon-Reed explores with her characteristic rigor and insight. A concise personal and scholarly history that avoids academic jargon as it illuminates emotional truths. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.