On Juneteenth: The Essential Story of “Freedom Day” and Its Importance to American History

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On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared more than three million enslaved people living in the Confederate States to be free. It was not until June 19, 1865, however, that Union Army General Gordon Granger arrived in Texas with the news. Since then Juneteenth has been celebrated on June 19 in Texas and many other states to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people, but it was not until 2021 that Congress recognized Juneteenth as a federal holiday. In this talk, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed will discuss her recent book, On Juneteenth, a blend of memoir and history that explores the violence and oppression that preceded and followed this celebration, what it means to us now, and how it relates to our larger fight for equality.

Annette Gordon-Reed is a Professor of History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard Law School, and the award-winning author of six books. Her latest book, On Juneteenth, sets out to capture the integral importance of the holiday to American history.

Professor Gordon-Reed is also the author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, which won the Pulitzer Prize in history and the National Book Award for nonfiction—along with fourteen other awards. It explores the inconsistencies of Jefferson’s stance on slavery and his relationship with enslaved woman Sally Hemings, and has been called “the best study of a slave family ever written” by noted Jefferson scholar Joseph Ellis. Her other books include Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy—a rich examination of scholarly writing on the relationships between Jefferson and Hemings, which exposes the possibility that scholars were misguided by their own biases and may even have contorted evidence to preserve their preexisting opinions of Jefferson. Her other book, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination, presents a provocative character study of Jefferson that challenges much of the scholarly status quo on his portrayal throughout history. Her upcoming title, A Jefferson Reader on Race, is set to be published in 2022.

Professor Gordon-Reed’s honors include the National Humanities Medal (awarded by President Barack Obama), a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship. She was also elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is a member of the Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. In 2019, she was elected a Member of the American Philosophical Society.

Click here for photos of the 2021-22 Spring Humanities Festival.

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