‘Everyone can celebrate this advance in human rights’

Annette Gordon-Reed on Juneteenth, the Texas elementary school named after her, and Harvard’s Legacy of Slavery committee

Annette Gordon-Reed ’84, the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard Law School, was just six years old when she integrated her suburban Houston elementary school. Today, Gordon-Reed is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, academic, and attorney — and her name will adorn a brand-new elementary school in the Conroe Independent School District when the building opens this fall. She is also the author of “On Juneteenth,” a definitive history of the now-federal holiday that celebrates the emancipation of enslaved Americans.

Harvard Law Today caught up with Gordon-Reed, who will visit Annette Gordon-Reed Elementary School later this year for a dedication ceremony, to find out what the naming means to her, more about her work on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery committee — and how she plans to celebrate Juneteenth.

Harvard Law Today: Last year, the Conroe Independent School District in Texas announced that it would name its newest elementary school after you. How does that make you feel?

Annette Gordon-Reed: It means a great deal to me. The significance of it is that I integrated our town schools when I was six years old. I went to the first grade at Anderson Elementary School, which was a white school. At that time, the school district and many communities in the South were resisting Brown [v. Board of Education (1954)]. This was more than 10 years after Brown, and the district had come up with a “freedom of choice” plan where white parents were supposed to pick white schools, and Black parents were supposed to pick Black schools. My parents decided to send me to a white school.

I grew up in a place that was still socially segregated. When Blacks went to the movies, we sat in the balcony, and then we had separate waiting rooms at the medical clinic, and so forth. So, this was a big deal for me to go to the school. That is why that event, and what it meant for our town, was significant.

HLT: You recently served on Harvard’s presidential committee on the school’s legacy of slavery. What was that experience like?

Gordon-Reed: It was a learning experience for me. Obviously, I knew that most universities — most important institutions — had ties to slavery. Slavery was woven throughout the fabric of American society in early America. But it was eye-opening to find the extent of the connections between New England, in general, and the Caribbean. I knew that there were ties, but the number of people who were from there who came to Harvard, who paid tuition in sugar and the investments made from it — the extensive nature of it was revelatory to me.

HLT: The committee’s conclusions detail previously unknown ties to enslaved people and enslavers whose wealth helped build Harvard, leading the University to commit $100 million for an endowed Legacy of Slavery Fund. What did you think about the committee’s conclusions and report?

Gordon-Reed: I support the conclusions. People worked very, very hard to come up with answers, but this is really just the beginning. We’re still exploring the best way to fashion the connections between HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] and other places as well. But it’s a very, very good start.

Rendering of the Annette Gordon-Reed Elementary School

Credit: Conroe Independent School District This illustration depicts the Annette Gordon-Reed Elementary School, which will be officially dedicated later this year. In 2021, the Conroe Independent School District in Texas announced that it would name its newest elementary school after Gordon-Reed.

HLT: You literally wrote the book “On Juneteenth“! What should we be thinking about as a nation as we approach the holiday this year?

Gordon-Reed: Well, to keep the seriousness of it in mind. It is a day of celebration, and there is barbecue, and there is a day off work — it is somewhat akin to July 4. However, I am hoping people will think about the history — the meaning — of it. That this was the end of something, but it was the beginning of another struggle.

In Union General Gordon Granger’s General Order No. 3, he not only says that slavery is over, he says that the formerly enslaved people should then be in a state of absolute equality with other citizens. Part of what we have been doing since then is to struggle to make that the case. He said those words, and they connect to the Declaration of Independence — “all men are created equal” — and the idea that equality is a bedrock American value. I think that is what we should be thinking about: How far have we come from where we were, and how far do we have to go to make that real?

The idea that equality is a bedrock American value … I think that is what we should be thinking about: How far have we come from where we were, and how far do we have to go to make that real?

HLT: Have you learned anything new, or have you had any particularly moving experiences while lecturing on your book over the past year?

Gordon-Reed: I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences. One of the interesting things is that people who are not of African descent wonder about how they should celebrate. We have seen some examples recently, particularly some examples from corporations, of what not to do. There a sense of concern among some about the possibility of not doing things the right way.

I guess these questions do not surprise me, but they are not something that I had thought about that much, because it has been a state holiday in Texas since 1980, and both Black and white people have had the opportunity to celebrate it there since then. However, I understand why whites outside of Texas might wonder about what it is that they are supposed to do. I always tell them ‘this is a family day, it’s a community day, it’s a day to think about this historical moment.’ Everyone can do that — celebrate that this was an advance in human rights. They should not be self-conscious about celebrating, because I think it is something for all Americans.

HLT: How do you and your family celebrate Juneteenth?

Gordon-Reed: It’s difficult because I’m in New York in June, and it’s not something celebrated as much here, so I try to do it with food. We are supposed to have a red drink. The original one was hibiscus tea, I believe. But now there is strawberry soda, or Big Red — things like that.

That said, now that this is a federal holiday, people are really getting into it! I will probably try to find some place to go to celebrate, because I imagine there will be more people out celebrating. The park, picnicking — that is where we have gone in the past.

HLT: Can you say more about the growth of the holiday?

Gordon-Reed: It is originally a Texas holiday. Granger comes to Texas and makes the announcement, and Black people hold parades, there are celebrations in parks, people give speeches, there is entertainment. It has been a really, really big deal for 157 years in Texas. In the rest of the country, not so much. We will see what happens now that it is a federal holiday [which happened in 2021]. Now, more people will have an incentive to come up with ways to celebrate. Younger generations of people outside of Texas will now come to know it through books, cookbooks, and the miracle of the internet. It will be interesting to see how it develops over the years. I think it will continue to be bigger and bigger.