Annette Gordon-Reed:We have to know the condition of oursociety, of our history before we can really think about makingchanges or keeping the things that are good, changing the thingsthat are bad.[MUSIC INTRO]Nicole Pullen Ross: Good morning. My name is Nicole Pullen Ross.I lead the New York Private Wealth Management business for thefirm. And am the very excited host today to have the opportunityto spend some time with our special guest, Annette Gordon-Reed.Annette's one of the most important American historians of ourtime. Gordon-Reed has won 16 book prizes, include a PulitzerPrize and a National Book Award for her 2008 book The Hemingsesof Monticello. Her latest work On Juneteenth recounts thenation's road to Juneteenth, which will be celebrated thisSaturday, June 19th. Its origins in Texas. And importantly,sheds a light on who we are as Americans.Annette, thank you so much for being here.Annette Gordon-Reed:I'm very glad to be here, even from ahotel room in DC. Thank you.Nicole Pullen Ross: So, your most recent book, which was awonderful recount, part memoir, part history in terms ofJuneteenth, it really, in my opinion, served as a bit of areflection of the Black experience, including your own ofcourse, where in Texas you were born and raised. The essays inthe book serve as an origin of the long road to June 19th, 1865,when Major General Gordon Granger announced the end of legalizedslavery in Texas.And before we delve into those themes, can you just share yourown story of what life was like growing up in East Texas?Annette Gordon-Reed:Well, I was born in Livingston, Texas,which is in East Texas, part of the "Big Thicket." Many peoplethink of Texas as a desert. It is, in fact, East Texas is partof a gigantic forest called the Big Thicket. Enormous diversityin the environment of the place.And when I was about six months old, I moved to Conroe, Texas,which was another small town in Texas, somewhat south ofLivingston, closer to Houston. And I always, for as far as I canremember, we celebrated Juneteenth in the summers. And thatconsisted of, for us as children, running around, drinking red
soda water, which is pop, usually strawberry soda, throwingfirecrackers. I can't believe we were allowed to play withmatches and throw firecrackers below the can. But we were. Butthat was a different time. My grandfather bought these for us. Imean, it was amazing. Sparklers.And it was sort of, to us, to me, it was like a Black 4th ofJuly. I mean, we celebrated the 4th of July as well. This wassort of the one-two punch, beginning with Juneteenth and thenJuly 4th. But this was a holiday that when I was growing up wasmainly about Black Texas. There may have been whites whocelebrated as well, but definitely Black Texans.And then when it became a state holiday in 1980, it was more,you know, everyone celebrated it then. But I would say it wassort of a small town, celebratory, fun day for people of Africandescent in Texas.Nicole Pullen Ross: Well, I want to talk a little bit about tothe people of Texas. And I think when people think about Texas,they often think about the cowboy, the rancher, or the oil man.Yet, there's a fourth figure that you talk about in your book,which is the slave plantation owner who really helped makeJuneteenth necessary. And although this figure no longerremains, describe the role that he played in Texas origins?Annette Gordon-Reed:Well, I mean, Stephen F. Austin who isthe father of Texas, who's called the "Father of Texas," took upthe mantle of his father, Moses Austin, who had been given theright to bring settlers into Texas. Moses died and Stephen F.Austin carried on.The idea was to have people come to the state, it wasn't a statethen, but come to the territory as part of Mexico, the provinceof Mexico. And extend the cotton empire into this area. This wasAustin's vision. He styled himself anti-slavery, not because he,you know, necessarily cared about Black people and the moralityof it, but because he was concerned about so many Black peopleand white people living together. It was a racial thing muchmore than being anti-slavery. And he had also said he understoodthat if white settlers came to Texas, and they didn't have theopportunity to bring their enslaved people, he said they wouldbe poor for very long if they tried to do this on their own.I mean, this vision of Texas as part of a cotton empire fueledthe culture of Texas. As you said before, you know, people thinkabout the oil man, which is the 20th century incarnation. Or
cowboys, and cowboys, certainly, there were Black cowboys aswell. But the state is seen almost as a white man. And that'swhat I say it is. And what I try to do in this book, what I wantto do, is to talk about all the other people who were there andhow slavery, this part of Texas that most people don't think of,when people think of slavery they might think of Mississippi orAlabama, Virginia, something like that. They know slavery isthere in Texas. But they don't see it as shaping the state inany way. But it did. And it continues to do so.Nicole Pullen Ross: Your parents moved you to what was known asa "white school" when you were in first grade, towards the endof Texas resistance to the Brown v Board decision. Yet, thismove as you recount, wasn't always welcomed by those in theBlack community, which I found to be really interesting. Why doyou think it was seen as threatening?Annette Gordon-Reed:Well, just by way of background, I wentto Anderson Elementary School, which was a white school. It wasan all white school. All teachers and all students were white,under what was called the Freedom of Choice Plan. To get aroundBrown, Texas and other jurisdictions came up with these Freedomof Choice Plans. And Freedom of Choice sounds great. Right? Youknow? You can do what you want. But the idea was that whiteparents would choose white schools and Black parents wouldchoose Black schools. And my parents decided to send me to awhite school.My older brothers remained at Booker T. Washington, which wasthe Black school where my mother taught because they werealready settled there and had been part of things. I was goingto real school that I would be connected to this particularschool. And they thought it would be better for me to try it, todo that.And they sent me. And it was something that was an intense timefor me. But it troubled many in the Black community, mainlylater, I should say, when the Supreme Court struck down Freedomof Choice Plan and Black parents and Black students had to moveto white schools. And they felt they lost something. And I thinkthey did lose something. Booker T. Washington was the nervecenter of the Black community in Conroe. The teachers were rolemodels. They were respected individuals. They lived in thecommunities with their students. They went to church with them.They would have socialized. The parents would have socialized.And so, all of that was lost then.
One of the things that happened in my town and across the Southwas that the kids were integrated, but the teachers were not. Inmy town and all across the South a number of Black teachers weremoved out of the classroom. And moved either into do subjectsthat were not their area or not in the classroom at all oradministration. And so, Black students lost role models. And itchanged the balance of the community when you have teachers wholive in the community with you; and I can recall playing with myfriends after school. And then all of the sudden they woulddisappear. And I'm thinking, what's going on here? And then Iwould realize one of their teachers, they spotted one of theirteachers driving down the road. And they didn't want to be seenoutside playing instead of doing their homework or whatever.Well, you know, that kind of thing.School was not just in the classroom. It was all in thecommunity because they were one. And so, they lost that. Andthey felt that very, very keenly.And I talk in the book about many of them in the town, noteverybody, but many of them in the town being actively hostiletowards me because they saw me as if I had caused all of this.But I really didn't. It was the Supreme Court that struck downthe Freedom of Choice Plans and then said at that pointeverybody had to change schools, Black people had to changeschools.Nicole Pullen Ross: I mean, it's so admirable. You talk aboutthe interaction that you had with some people in the Blackcommunity. And in your book, you talk about some of your friendswho were friends with you in school, but if they saw you outwith the family, would be reluctant to engage. And I thought thepoint that you made in terms of the poorer family and the kidswho played with you often, really underscored for you early onthat not all white people were the same. And that sounds like aplace where you got a little bit of balance and perspective,just trying to navigate all of those worlds.Annette Gordon-Reed:Yes. I mean, as I said, it was intense.I understood that I was doing something that was important forthe town. It was historic for the town. There would bedelegations of educators who would come and stand in the doorwatching me in class. Watching us in class. Because it was notjust me, but I think it was the idea of how do Black people andwhite people interact? And I was the only one. So, it's not areally good experiment there, but I had a sense that this wassomething that was important and that it had something to do
with the past. I understood that it had to do with thetraditions of the town.When I went to the doctor, there was a waiting room for Blackpeople and a waiting room for white people. When we went to themovies, Black people had to sit in the balcony. So, I knew evenbefore I went to school that there was a racial divide. But it'snot until I went to school and that I started to think aboutwhy. You know? What's going on here? Why is it a big deal that aBlack kid is in this class? And that led me to thinking aboutthe past. It led me to thinking about slavery later on.And so, I think that experience probably accounts for why I'm ahistorian. From pulling all of these things together and tryingto figure out what is this about.Nicole Pullen Ross: I want to talk a little bit more about that,kind of what is this about, and just the counternarratives thatyou talk about in your book. A lot of your work looks at thecomplexity of history and the tendency to omit thosecounternarratives from the official record, the stories of JoeWinters and Bob White who were Black men accused of raping whitewomen. And they were later executed. In both those situations,the men offered alternative visions, which were, effectively,ignored. And even today we talk a lot about the Tulsa massacreand we're seeing efforts to start to unearth some of thosecounternarratives. Why do you think it is that we as Americansare still struggling to bring these important truths to light?Annette Gordon-Reed:Well, you know, I would say, I don'tthink it's just Americans. I think that this is sort of a humantendency, a national tendency, for people who see themselves asa people with a history, to want to present only the good thingsthat happened in the past. To try to minimize or to hide thethings that were, problematic doesn't even describe it, tragicthings that happened in the past. I mean, all of the world now,I think that people are grappling this. How do you bring thesore points of history to the fore? And I think it has to dowith the fact, almost like a lack of faith in a way, peoplethink that if you don't tell a completely pristine, wonderfulstory, then that means you hate the place. Or it means thatpeople, young people in particular, because I think peoplealways think "what does this mean for the children? How will thechildren take this?" They don't think that young people have thecapacity to develop love for or allegiance to places if theyknow that there were bad things that happened there. I thinkthat's very shortsighted. And from engaging young people, as my
students and so forth, I think that they're pretty good aboutunderstanding that nothing is perfect. And understanding thatpeople thought a lot of strange things in the past. And youknow, some of them were good. And some of them were bad. But thepurpose is to try to figure out how we can be better. But youcan't do that if you don't know the condition of your craft.We have to know the condition of our society, of our history,before we can really think about making changes or keeping thethings that are good, changing the things that are bad.Nicole Pullen Ross: Right. Great point. I want to talk a littlebit about the Alamo. You also write that the heroes in thebattle for Alamo were, themselves, slave owners with shadypasts. Yet, these men are still idolized in popular culture.What does this say about our need to have the myths and thelegends? And can, or should we, strive to change this?Annette Gordon-Reed:Well, again, there are nationalmythologies. And I say in the book, and I think its true, thatmaybe we have some kind of psychic need for that. I mean, weneed myths because, particularly for a country that is as largeand diverse as ours, some points of reference to hold peopletogether. Myths serve that, to sort of give you some sense of anorigin story. Where we're from. Who we are. What kind of peoplewe are.And the Alamo myth, it's very interesting the way this works, asI mention, as you mentioned, that the people who were fightingin the Alamo are people who want a republic. And they created arepublic that explicitly protected slavery. And as I saidbefore, stopped Black people from coming to live in Texas. Andall of those things. So, they're fighting for principles. Buttheir principles are not things that we adhere to today, I hopewe don't adhere to them today.But the idea of standing firm on your beliefs, standing yourground, it's fascinating. A couple of weeks ago or probably lastmonth, Texas Democrats walked out of the legislature to denythem a quorum when they were voting about these votersuppression measures and so forth. And one of the people whowalked out said, "This is our Alamo, we're making our laststand." And I thought what irony in that. But you can see howthat concept, Texans take that concept and use it in differentcontexts altogether.But the Alamo, this idea of a last stand, of a brave stand, is
still important to people who, even if you know, and I'm suremost of these people know the real history of the Alamo, that itwas this last stand that spurred people onto the Battle of theSan Jacinto and they eventually, you know, win this struggle.So, we have to know about the Alamo. But I doubt that peoplewill forget the Alamo or do away with the idea of the Alamo, notthe actual factual Alamo, but the idea of it and what it meansin Texas and for Texans.Nicole Pullen Ross: I want to go back to when you actually wroteabout or started this book Juneteenth and the summer of 2020when there was so much going on in this country. It was duringthe depths of the pandemic and in the middle of this ongoingwave of civil unrest triggered by the murder of George Floyd.When we look back at that period, are you optimistic that we'llbe more truthful and accurate as we recount these events?Annette Gordon-Reed:Well, I try to be optimistic all thetime. I think what's different now is we have way more people ofcolor who are writing and telling these stories. And it isn'tjust people of color. Many of the outstanding scholars ofslavery and of race are not Black people. They're white people.So, there are all different kinds. But I think we've been in amove, in the historical profession, really since the 1950s,actually, to talk about slavery and the aftermath of slavery andrace in the 20th century.Some of the reasons things were hidden before is that you hadsort of a lock on the historical narrative. And that lockdoesn't exist anymore. There will be a diversity of peoplewriting about these topics. So, I think it's going to be hard tohide things the way things were hidden in the past. Like theTulsa riot. I was reading somewhere that someone cut outarticles about Tulsa from the newspaper before it was sent, inthis particular place, before it was sent for microfilm so thatthings were literally excised from the record. That's hard to donow. That's very, very hard to do now.But the thing we may have to worry about is people putting falsestories. That's the other side of it. But I think that there'senough vigilance now, and we know what to look for. I'moptimistic that we won't be able to hide all of the things thathappened in the way that was done in the past when we had muchtighter control over the narrative, which we don't have today.Nicole Pullen Ross: Well, share with us, bring us into thismoment of history yesterday. You were in the room where it
happened, if you will. Share with the audience what it was liketo be part of yesterday's event. Give us just a little bit ofinsight into that historic moment.Annette Gordon-Reed:Well, it happened so fast. Like, I gotan invitation and, like, 8 o'clock in the morning. And the nextthing I'm on a flight at 10:45 down to Washington for thesigning. And it was a festive occasion. Everybody was happythere. These are members of the Black caucus, white senators,people from Texas were there as well. And it was a festiveoccasion, as I said.I was really keen to have Miss Opal Lee, who is the 94 year oldwoman who has been pushing this for years now. I asked her, "Howdid you get started on this?" She said, "Well, when I was about89, I decided." I have to stop you right there. You know? Stopright there. I want to get to 89. Then I want to be an 89 yearold who goes on quests. Right? And a successful one.And I was wondering if she was going to make it. And she walkedinto the room. And it was really electric because many of thepeople knew her, knew of her, even if they'd never met her.We've done a couple of events together over the past few weeks.And it was wonderful to see her. And the President was very,very kind to her and was solicitous of her and pointed her outand invited her up for the signing and gave her a pen. And thisis really her doing in lots of ways.It was just great. I was privileged to be there. I'm glad I camedown. And I think the speech by the President and the VicePresident capsulated the moment very, very well.It was a surprise. Monday, there was no inkling in my head thatanything like this was going to happen. I thought it mighthappen in a few months or something, within the next year itwould be. But this was a lightning result here in the span ofjust a few days. And so, I'm very glad I got the chance to seeit.Nicole Pullen Ross: Well, thank you. It is a privilege to havehad the opportunity to spend some time with you this morning.Thank you for all you're doing. And I hope your celebration thisweekend is more memorable than others may have been in the past,or as memorable. And we look forward to continuing to have youshine a light on some of the really important aspects of ourhistory and our future.
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Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, just by way of background, I went to Anderson Elementary School, which was a white school. It was an all white school. All teachers and all students were white, under what was called the Freedom of Choice Plan. To get around Brown, Texas and other jurisdictions came up with these Freedom of Choice Plans.