‘Last Lecture’: Annette Gordon-Reed traces her journey from Texas childhood to lawyer and historian

Professor Annette Gordon-Reed ’84 spoke about her experiences combining legal analysis and historical research at a March 9 event hosted by the Class Marshals as part of the Last Lecture Series. This year’s series, which invites HLS professors to give a lecture as if addressing the graduating class for the last time, also features Jeannie Suk ’02, Robert Sitkoff, and Robert Bordone ’97.

Gordon-Reed, who has received the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in History, specializes in American legal history. She is the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School, and a Professor of History at Harvard University.

Professor Annette Gordon-Reed ’84.

Credit: Asia Kepka Professor Annette Gordon-Reed ’84.

Gordon-Reed began her talk by crediting her parents with teaching her to think of herself as “a privileged person.” Acknowledging that “privilege” has taken on a negative connotation of “cluelessness” about power, Gordon-Reed explained her parents’ message was that privilege created a duty to make the world a better place.

She did not mean “material privilege,” Gordon-Reed clarified. She spoke of how her parents, a teacher and a soft-hearted businessman, were not wealthy but were privileged in the sense that “they had had experiences that told them there was a lot more out there in the world.”

Gordon-Reed shared how, when it came time for her to start school, her African-American parents defied expectations and sent her to “the white school.” Texas was still deeply divided at the time, ten years after the Brown decision desegregating public schools, and six-year-old Gordon-Reed had to go to the elementary school by herself. “Talk about hostile environments,” she said with a chuckle.

“It was a difficult time, but at that moment, this was an early sort of introduction to the idea that law mattered,” she said. “It was something that my parents talked about; it was something that had operation in my life.”

At the movies, her family sat in a different balcony, and at the doctor’s office, they had to sit in a separate waiting room, Gordon-Reed recalled. In that doctor’s waiting room, she would look through the glass window to the other side and see that the other side had magazines.

“I knew that law sort of came along and eventually changed all of this. Laws put this in place, but lawyers working in another way could change that. And they transformed my community and my parents’ life,” Gordon-Reed said.

She was interested in history and writing from early on, she said, but it was her father who suggested that she consider studying law. Gordon-Reed initially started at HLS “to change the world,” but her plans shifted as she realized certain legal jobs could command salaries that were “way out of proportion with what anybody in my family would have made.”

“I started to think, ‘Is it really practical for me to give that up for what I wanted to do—to be a writer?’” Consoling herself that she could do both—practice law and write on the side—she joined a large law firm, where she quickly found that there was no time to write.

Gordon-Reed said she was grateful for the learning opportunities at the firm, but she knew it was not the kind of work she wanted to do. Her feeling that she would not stay long at the firm was intensified, she said, by the fact colleagues frequently could not tell her apart from two other African-American women at the firm, one of whom was Loretta Lynch ’84, now U.S. Attorney General.

Gordon-Reed described how she became serious about pursuing her original dreams of writing after someone handed her a copy of a newspaper op-ed by one of her college classmates. “Envy is one of the deadly sins, but it can also be a great catalyst,” she said. She remembered thinking, “If this person can be in the New York Times, writing, and he leaves a lot to be desired, I can do this. I can definitely do this, and I should do this, and I should not waste my time.”

There are other people who are much better at and love practicing law, including her husband, Gordon-Reed said. “But that was not for me. That’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to write; I wanted to do research; I wanted to enter the lives of other people but to do it in the way that I wanted to do it.”

She left her law firm job and spent several years as general counsel for the New York City Board of Corrections, but looking at murals painted by the inmates left her in tears at the sense of wasted talent. “I went in happy that I was going to be able to make a difference, but it was just too much,” Gordon-Reed said.

The city agency job did have the upside of giving her more time for writing, and she finally decided to enter academia. She felt, she said, that moment “was the only shot I had to be able to write, to be able to think about issues, to be able to use all of the things that I had been thinking about up to this moment—to be thinking about society, to be writing about society in a way that I thought would be useful.”

In the course of her research and writing, Gordon-Reed became interested in a little-known movie called Jefferson in Paris, which touched on Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. Critics were using pseudo-legal language such as whether the story could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and Gordon-Reed realized that as a lawyer with a preexisting interest in Jefferson and the history of slavery, she had important things to say about this topic.

Her research was not driven by the question of whether Jefferson and Hemings had been involved. Rather, “what interested me was how law and how white supremacy was used in history to deal with this topic, to debunk this story,” she said.

Gordon-Reed explained the key points that stood out to her about the story. First, slaves could testify against free black people but not against white people, and second, slaves could not legally marry. By de-legitimating black people and black families, the slavery system used legal rules to diminish black people as untrustworthy, she explained. “Whether Tom and Sally had children or not was interesting, but it was really how historians were writing about it, and how they wrote black people out of the story.”

Gordon-Reed published two books on the topic, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy in 1997 and The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family in 2008. Eventually DNA testing vindicated her research by proving the Hemings family descended from Jefferson.

Gordon-Reed recalled the excitement of that time. “I got to be a writer, I got to be a researcher, I got to look at a topic that I was passionate about, and I think I was able to make a contribution to historiography, sort of changing the way people think about Jefferson, an important figure who was quite controversial in a lot of ways but who also looms large over American history,” she said.

Ultimately, her work stems from the way her parents taught her to think about herself, Gordon-Reed said. “The Hemingses of Monticello continues with the notion that I wanted to break—to sort of relieve—enslaved families from the grip of law.”

“Law is important. Obviously I believe that. But the kinds of human relations, the kinds of things we’re talking about in both of these books, transcend it,” Gordon-Reed said. “Sometimes you have to look beyond it, because the law is not put in place for everybody, is not made to work for everybody. It’s our hope that we can try to make it work for everybody, but the historian understands that there are moments when that just was not the case, and slavery was one of them.”