Starting in the 1790s, Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation, gave birth to six children. Since their birth, the father of the children has been continuously debated.
In the 1960s, while Annette Gordon-Reed was in elementary school, she became interested in history, including the life of Jefferson. Gordon-Reed has since authored multiple books about the third president of the United States, including The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, which was selected as a 2009 Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle book.
Gordon-Reed’s work has drawn the conclusion that Jefferson was the father of Hemingses children, and has changed scholarship surrounding the topic.
At 10:45 a.m. Tuesday, July 19, historian, law professor and author Gordon-Reed will deliver a lecture in the Amphitheater following Week Four’s theme of “The Future of History.” Her lecture, “On Juneteenth,” will cover how history is taught.
“I plan to talk about the recent controversies about the teaching of history,” she said, “why I think it’s important that we resist the efforts to water down the truth for children. It can be told in an age-appropriate manner, but skipping over things is not the answer.”
For The Hemingses of Monticello alone, Gordon-Reed won 16 book prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2009 and the National Book Award in 2008.
She has authored five other books and written for major publications including The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine and The New York Times. Her most recent book is the 2021 New York Times Bestseller On Juneteenth, which combines memoir with crucial American history.
Her career has been filled with awards and accomplishments, but she said changing perceptions of history and “getting people to think differently about the institution of slavery and the role of members of the founding generation in the institution” has been the most rewarding.
Her work changing the narrative of Monticello has been especially gratifying.
“I have enjoyed seeing the changes in the story of Monticello, in particular,” Gordon-Reed said. “Adding the lives of other people — the enslaved — to the story was what I wanted to do.”
Gordon-Reed is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard University. She formerly served as the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard University and the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
Through her work as a professor, Gordon-Reed said she hopes to impart to her students an ability to view what they hear and read through a critical lens.
She wants the audience at her lecture today to understand the importance of the current political climate of the United States.
“We should take our politics very seriously at this time,” Gordon-Reed said. “We can look to the past for examples of wrong decisions made, and try to avoid repeating those mistakes.”
She drew parallels between the state of the country now, and its state following Reconstruction. Gordon-Reed recommends reading books on that time period for people trying to educate themselves more on the history of the country.
“The period after the Civil War, when the country was attempting to bring Black people into citizenship, and when the Civil War amendments — the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution — were created, presented a time not unlike our own,” she said. “We have just come off of having the first Black president, and other enormous cultural changes that have disquieted a number of people.”
With recent legal changes, especially the overturn of Roe v. Wade, Gordon-Reed suggests people take their responsibility of voting and participating in government seriously. The threats to democracy around the world should motivate people to consider what they want the future of the country to look like, she said.
“There are forces at work that are hostile to the idea of democracy and republicanism, with a small ‘r.’ The authoritarian turn is present in other parts of the world, as well,” Gordon-Reed said. “We have to decide if the experiment (that began) in 1776 will continue.”