My book recommendation for June is On Juneteenth, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annette Gordon-Reed. Get this: Gordon-Reed, who teaches at Harvard, grew up in Conroe Texas. She was the first black student at Conroe’s Anderson Elementary School. Her Texas roots go deep, to the 1820’s on her mother’s side, and to the 1860s on her father’s side.
Gordon-Reed has won sixteen book prizes. She won the National Book Award in 2008, for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W.W. Norton, 2008). She is also known for Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (UVA Press, 1997).
Gordon-Reed talks about about growing up in Conroe. Those from Montgomery County must read chapter two. She talks about Juneteenth, well known in Texas. June 19, 1865 is the day that emancipation was announced in Texas, two years after the emancipation proclamation in two months after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.
More importantly, she covers the role slavery played in Texas. We often think of the first slaves as having come in 1619, but the author shows us that the Spaniards brought Black people, both slaves and free, to Galveston, Texas and St. Augustine, Florida in the 1500s, some in the 1520’s, 100 years before Plymouth and Jamestown. Cabeza de Vaca depended on his translator, Estebanico, a black, Arab Muslim from Morocco, who came as a slave.
Yes, Emancipation was finally announced on June 19, 1865 in Galveston, but what happened afterwards? Did white Texans warmly receive their newly freed fellow Texans? We learn that the violent white backlash was worse in Texas than most other states. Gordon-Reeds suggests this was because Texas did not suffer battle losses. In fact, Texas won the last Confederate battle victory of the Civil War. The story of how integration took place is an important lesson.
One of the things that makes this book so real and readable is the number of personal family stories and experiences Dr. Gordon-Reed shares. How did families celebrate Juneteenth Emancipation Day in Conroe, Texas in 1960’s? What did they eat? How did the white community respond. These stories are gold.
There is a mural of Gordon-Reed in Conroe. She is recognized as a local literary hero. There is also a bust of her in Conroe’s Founders’ Plaza.
Imagine my surprise when I stumbled across my name in her book. As I perused her bibliography, I was delighted to see a reference to my 2019 Connections article on “Lynchings in Conroe.” (How many Synod newsletters get quoted in books by Pulitzer Prize winning authors?) The article had been written shortly after Pastor Anthony and Kim Chatman (Hosanna Lutheran Church in Houston) and Pastor Harvey Clemons (Pleasant Hill Baptist in Houston’s 5th Ward) and I had visited the National Museum for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama and then walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. In that article I looked up the names of those lynched in Conroe, where I live.
So, I sent her an email, to see if she’d be willing to do a book signing, or a talk, or even a webinar. I’ll let you know what she says.
This article is reprinted from Gulf Coast Synod Connections, May 31, 2021.