Life stories from Martin Karplus, Steven Pinker, Helen Vendler, E.O. Wilson, and many more, in the Experience series.
For as long as she can remember, Annette Gordon-Reed wanted to write. As a child, she loved words and books, especially biographies, and was all of 7 when she became an author herself. More than four decades later, “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family” brought a Pulitzer Prize and recognition as a major historian of U.S. slavery.
Gordon-Reed’s path to Harvard — she is the Law School’s Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History and a professor of history in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences — is every bit as interesting as her pioneering scholarship.
Born in 1958 and educated in racially divided East Texas, she studied history at Dartmouth before choosing Harvard Law School over Yale (nearly breaking into a postal box when she realized she’d mailed the wrong acceptance letter). After stints as a corporate lawyer and as counsel for the New York City Board of Corrections, Gordon-Reed joined the faculty of New York Law School in 1993. The next year, she began working on “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy” (1997), in which she defied long-held historical assumptions by marshaling evidence to show that Jefferson was the father of Hemings’ five children, a thesis soon upheld by DNA tests.
Gordon-Reed’s work as a professor and historian was interrupted on Sept. 11, 2001, when debris from the World Trade Center destroyed the Manhattan apartment where she lived with her husband and two children. “We could easily not have been OK,” she says. “Our kids could have been orphaned, so it was a terrible and traumatic thing. It’s something that I don’t think about a lot.”
Today, she is the author or co-author of six works of history, including a biography of America’s 17th president, Andrew Johnson, and, most recently, “The Most Blessed of Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination,” with Peter S. Onuf. In addition to the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for History, Gordon-Reed’s accolades include a National Book Award, the National Humanities Medal, a MacArthur “genius” grant, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Q: Where are you from?
A: I was born in Livingston, Texas. When I was a couple months old my parents moved to a town called Conroe, which was about 50 miles south of Livingston, closer to Houston. Conroe and Livingston are in East Texas, which is the part of Texas that is very lush — pine trees, logging is an industry there. Conroe was founded as an oil town, not far from the Humble oil fields, which is the big beginning of Exxon. And so, it was an area that was prosperous. I grew up in Conroe and I stayed there until I was 18 and went off to college.
Q: What did your parents do?
A: My mother was an English teacher. My father had a succession of businesses. He owned stores; he owned a funeral home at one point. That’s what he did, as best he could during that time period, an entrepreneur but in a small-town setting.
Q: I read that your mother said from a very young age you would stand in your crib facing the wall, and that she had a sense that you were engaged in deep thinking even then.
A: I don’t remember that part — she told me that [laughs]. But I’ve always been a quiet person. An observer. She said I used to like to go and sit on the steps when I was little and watch the world go by. I always liked to read and be off in my own world in a way, and also entering the worlds of other people. So, yes, I think I’ve always been a contemplative person, and from her statements, that was something that was true early on.
Q: Can you tell me about the early influence of books in your life?
A: I just loved books. My mother read to us. Books were important to her. They were important to my father, too, but my mother, as an English teacher, that was her thing. So, from the stories that she read to me, I moved over to thinking that I might like to write things myself. I liked the look of books, and the words. Every year it was exciting to go from “Dick and Jane See Spot Run” to gradually more words to more complex sentences. The sense of progression about that was very exciting to me. I read things at home. My mother made sure there were age-appropriate things for us to read and I took advantage of that.
Q: Were there any early books that really captivated you?
A: When I was older I liked the “Chronicles of Prydain” series of books [by Lloyd Alexander], which would be a milder version of “Game of Thrones” today, which I don’t watch. But there were knights and dragons and vaguely paranormal things. That kind of thing I liked quite a bit. And “Caddie Woodlawn” [Carol Ryrie Brink] was a book that I liked very much when I was small. I also liked to read the biographies of famous people and there was a series on people such as Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and George Washington Carver. Books about people interested me.
A: It’s the interesting things that people were doing. For a time I liked Egypt-related books, but mainly I liked biographies. In the back of my classroom in elementary school we had bookshelves with our own little library. That set of biographies I mentioned was on those shelves and was something that I just worked my way through sometime around the third grade.
Q: Do you remember your earliest impression of Jefferson from those biographies?
A: My first impression was of somebody who was curious and liked to read, the way I liked to read. I was also interested in his fascination with architecture. I thought it would be fun to build things, even though I took a test once in high school that was supposed to tell you what you were suited for, and that was one of the things that they told me never to do. We had a big yard in the back of the house that had pine trees, and my friends and I used to make houses with the fallen pine needles. You could sort of do a floor plan with them. So, from that came thinking about architecture and thinking about building. Planning stuff was interesting to me, and Jefferson’s passion about that made an impact on me.
Q: You went fairly quickly from reading to writing your first book, “Lost at Sea.” What led you to become an author at the age of 7?
A: Again, because I loved books and I wanted to do this on my own. “Lost at Sea,” if I wanted to get psychoanalytical about it, was probably about how I integrated our school district. I was the first black child to go to a white school in our school district when I was in first grade. In kindergarten I had been at the black school where my mother taught. They had these freedom of choice plans at the time, which was a way to sort of circumvent Brown v. Board of Education. This was 10 years after Brown, but people were still fighting about it, and with these choice plans white parents were supposed to pick white schools for their kids and black parents were supposed to pick black schools. But my parents had been reading the news and understood that that was not going to work, that these plans were going to be struck down. Also, my father said in later years that he did not like the idea of a K-12 school.
A: He didn’t like the idea of kids of different ages all indiscriminately mixed together. The white schools were not done that way. You went K-4, then 5 and 6, then 7 and 8, then high school. He thought if this is what they set up for their children, there must have been some reasons, maybe developmental reasons, not to have everybody mixed together. So that influenced his decision to send me to a white school in the district. Then the court struck down the freedom of choice plans. Everybody had to move around in order to desegregate the schools, but I was already in place. That’s the good part about it. The bad part about it is that I was there by myself. Maybe that’s what “Lost at Sea” meant. I don’t know. I remember doing it. It was sort of a happy thing. I remember drawing pictures of an island and of being out on the sea. So it was a happy thing for me to do. But looking back on it now, I sort of wonder about why I picked that particular theme.
Q: What was that like, to be the only African-American student in the school?
A: I’d be in class and I’d look up and in the doorway would be three people standing there to sort of watch the experiment, not just to watch me, but all of us to see how this was going. I learned to be on display. The people at the school could not have been nicer. The administrators, the teachers were completely wonderful. They handled it very, very well. Not all the students did. When I look back there were students whose parents I think told them, “Make sure you talk to this person.” But there was also the opposite. So it was good and bad. I remember one group of girls, sisters, who were very, very poor. They all wore clothes that obviously their mother had made from the same fabric. At recess I was usually sitting by myself, and these sisters, who were not in my class, would come over and say, “Let’s play Red Rover.” That was my first real inkling that not everybody is the same — that not all white people were the same. There were people who were mean to me and then there were people like this. There were differing responses — some black people were supportive, some black people were hostile. Some white people were hostile, some tried to be supportive. So it was just all over the map.
Q: What was that like for you?
A: I think it probably made me political at an early age; political in the sense of thinking about race and thinking about social change. I am a kid in the late ’60s and there are riots and there’s the Black Power movement and all this stuff is going on out in the world that I see on the news. But I also had a sense that I had a part in that because of what had happened in my school district. So very early on I had a sense of being part of black progress, or having a role to play in that, and thinking that we were all in a sort of community that was moving somewhere, was moving forward. My parents were very racially conscious. We had all the books that you would expect to have and we talked about these things, argued about all these things so that the whole black movement was never something that was outside. I had a little part in it myself.
Q: Do you think that early experience influenced your decision to study history at Dartmouth?
A: I wouldn’t say that my love of history was driven by what had happened, but it went alongside it. It certainly influenced me in wanting to become a lawyer, because I knew that lawyers had been a part of the movement, had been the catalyst for this kind of thing. Many people come to law school with the idea that they want to change the world in some way. So, yes, I think it influenced my choice to come to law school. And for that I knew I wanted to go to Harvard.
Q: Why Harvard?
A: Because it was Harvard and because there are so many Harvard lawyers, people I was familiar with: Archibald Cox from Watergate, the names of people who were in public service … that’s what Harvard is known for. I wasn’t fixated on practice. I was fixated on being a lawyer.
Q: What is the difference in your mind?
A: I wasn’t thinking that I would practice for the rest of my life. I knew that I wanted to practice, but I also figured if I wanted to leave and do something different, what better way to do that than as a person who came from Harvard. I thought it would give me flexibility. But at Dartmouth people began talking up Yale Law School, saying Yale was more selective and it was allegedly the better school. I thought maybe I had been shortsighted, so I investigated it. Then I applied and was accepted to both schools and I was really torn. I was going back and forth up until the day I had to make a decision. Finally, I filled out both acceptance letters and went out to the mailbox. The envelopes looked identical. I told myself this is it, and I blindly put one in the slot. I decided that the one left in my hand would be the school I had rejected. I looked down to see I was still holding the Harvard letter and I immediately got a sinking feeling.
Q: So … it’s a federal offense to tamper with a mailbox.
A: It is! And I was trying, thinking how can I get this out? Actually, you can’t get in those things. I was just heartsick. I got up early the next morning and went to the Post Office on Main Street and said: “I put a letter in the mailbox. I did not mean to. I want it back.” And they gave it back to me. The mailbox is still in the same place. I am on the Board of Trustees at Dartmouth and every time I go up there, I walk past it and think about that day.
Q: Why do you think you knew it was the wrong decision?
A: I was listening to other people instead of myself. I had visited both places. Yale is a great school but it was too small. I had been at a small college. I talked to Dartmouth students who were here at Harvard and Dartmouth students who were at Yale. At the time Yale Law School had, I think, about 135 people per class, and Harvard had more than 500. The previous year Yale had just 13 black students in the incoming class, seven black males and six females, and that just wasn’t enough for me. I hadn’t formed any serious attachments at Dartmouth that were going to go anywhere — not anywhere I wanted to go. I thought: there are seven black guys at Yale, so seven times three is 21 versus HLS at that time, which had maybe 35 black guys per class. Then multiply that by three, that’s just a completely different social life. So the size of HLS gave me a larger black community to be a part of.
Q: And you met your husband here?
A: I did. I met him at the Black Law School Students Association picnic the first week of school. We were in the same dorm, the same section, and the same small legal methods class in law school, so we got a chance to see each other a lot and become friends and then become more, and then we got engaged.
Q: What was your first job after you graduated from HLS?
A: First I went to Cahill Gordon & Reindel, a Wall Street firm where I worked for three years.
Q: What did you do there?
A: Cahill had an open system for young associates coming in, so I started off doing litigation. I worked with Floyd Abrams, the great First Amendment lawyer and the lawyer for The New York Times. I did some labor work for the Times concerning their disputes with their reporters. My first job ever was with the Conroe Courier as the society editor when I was 15 so I was always partial to journalism and journalists. Those Times cases were not pleasing things to be involved in because we were on the management side. Then I wanted to try something different so I did corporate work. I was a young associate on deals with Drexel Burnham, common stock offerings — all kinds of things.
Q: What happened after your time there?
A: I was looking to try to recover why I had gone to law school — that is, to change the world. And that doesn’t really happen in the way that I thought of it at a law firm. I saw an advertisement for a job as counsel for the New York City Board of Correction and I thought this is something that I might want to do. It’s not a prisoners’ rights organization obviously, it’s a government agency, but we wrote minimum standards for the jails. The counsel hears inmate grievances and appeals from disciplinary rules. We dealt with mental health issues and all health issues on Rikers Island. It was a huge change of pace and it was good to have the kind of responsibility that went along with that. I worked with an executive director and the field staff that was out at Rikers, so I had to go there quite a bit.
Q: What kinds of things did you do at Rikers?
A: We were supposed to go to riots, to observe and to watch for reprisals. We were supposed to go out and be a presence. I went out to meet with the field staff periodically, and for other kinds of meetings. It was interesting to be out there to see this world of mainly young people, but it could also be depressing. I remember seeing some of the murals that people would draw — so much talent wasted. When you start out hearing inmate grievances, inmate appeals, you feel like you are making a difference. If officials are not being fair, you can intervene and help individual people and you feel good about that kind of stuff. But then it became a torrent of this. You realize that you are making a difference in some individual people’s lives and that’s important, but it was just depressing after a time and it was not what I wanted to do.
Q: What did you want to do?
A: I wanted to get back to writing. I was trying to write a book about W.E.B. Du Bois, which is one of the reasons I had left law practice. I went to a law firm because that’s what people were doing and it was a way to pay back student loans, but I had also begun trying to write again on my own. I was doing book reviews and trying to write fiction, and taking writing classes. I’d always wanted to be a writer, but I’d kind of put it aside as something that was not practical. But then I began to think that I could do both, because there are people who practice and write. I was thinking about Louis Auchincloss — but that’s Louis Auchincloss. He was rich, and I was not. Once I started at the board I had a bit more time to do some writing, but not that much because then I had kids.
Q: This would have been in the early ’90s?
A: Yes, my first child was born in 1990, Susie. My son, Gordon, was born in 1992. So there was a lot going on, a lot of balls in the air: kids and work and trying to write, and that’s when I decided that maybe I should go back and get a degree. I looked at the possibility of getting a Ph.D. in history at Columbia and realized that might take seven or eight years. I couldn’t say to my husband, a Californian whom I dragged out to New York, “Oh, guess what, I am having you live here on the East Coast, and now I am going to quit my job and go to graduate school.” That was not going to happen.
Instead I thought about teaching. I thought academia was a place where I could write and engage in that kind of life of the mind, so I went out on the market, but I had to stay in New York City. New York Law School said yes in 1992, and so that’s where I went. While there I started working on a law review article about prisons that just wasn’t really getting off the ground. Then in 1994 I heard about a movie being made, “Jefferson in Paris,” and saw some articles and statements saying the movie was going to treat this story about Sally Hemings as though it were true, and that some people were really upset about that. I had never lost my interest in slavery at Monticello and Jefferson, so I decided to write an op-ed in support of the evidence: A man named Madison Hemings said he was the son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and another former slave, Israel Jefferson — we know now his last name is Gillette — corroborated what Hemings said. I thought it was wrong to characterize their statements as “no evidence.” It’s like saying they didn’t exist in a way. It was not proof, but it was certainly evidence. From there it just kind of expanded. I put aside the law review article. I didn’t tell anybody that I was writing a book except my husband, and I worked feverishly.
Q: What did it feel like to be essentially taking on the academic establishment? It seems like prior to your work, the prevailing theory was that Jefferson didn’t have children with Sally Hemings, based largely on the idea that a Founding Father would never have fathered children with a slave. Can you say more about your decision to go up against that accepted narrative?
A: I think that’s what being at Harvard Law School as a student taught me. We were taught to think about problems and to attack problems, and we were taught that you could take things apart in a way that could help people see these things in a different light. So it never occurred to me not to do it. I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t think twice about writing the book. Since then a number of my fellow historians have said to me, “If you had come to me as a graduate student and told me you were going to do this, I would have told you not to.”
In a way, things worked out the way they were supposed to work out. And I don’t think it’s just a “this is all for the better” rationalization. I think that landing where I landed, the kind of law school where I went to teach, which was not a top tier law school but was on the rise trying to build its reputation, made this possible. All they wanted you to do was to do good scholarship. I think if I had been at Harvard or Yale, or other places starting my career, I might have been intimidated into thinking I’ve got to do the law review article, I have to follow the path. If I’d gone to a Ph.D. program, I probably would have written a good book. I would imagine I would have been trained to do a good book, but I wouldn’t have done my first book, which was such a product of my own passion and my own direction, even more than “The Hemingses of Monticello.”
My first book is really me. It’s the most me. People read the manuscript and made suggestions, but all of the strengths and weaknesses — everything expresses who I am more than anything I’ve done. And I think I would have been trying to do what other people wanted me to do if I had been at a Ph.D. program or if I had been at a top law school. So everything happened in the right time and in the right way.
Q: Did you know after your first book that “The Hemingses of Monticello” would follow?
A: The first book is analytical and introduces you to the Hemings family but not in a way that I thought would actually help people know them. I thought one of the reasons that it was so easy to dismiss their story or not think about them in relationship to Jefferson was that people didn’t know who they were. So I wanted to tell their story and to give people a stake in them, while keeping in mind that many people could not imagine how this happened. For a number of people it was a failure of imagination: How could Jefferson have had this kind of a relationship? How could this have worked? I could easily see how it worked, but if you tell the story, tell who these people were, you could show that Sally Hemings didn’t exist by herself in relationship to Jefferson. She was part of a web of relationships: to her mother, her brothers, her sisters, Jefferson’s wife — her half-sister. What did that mean for Sally Hemings and her siblings? What did it mean to Jefferson? I thought by showing their lives and what happened to them, we could answer some of these questions. You could piece it together to see exactly how all of this fit.
So I knew I was going to do a follow-up book on them. I knew that Jefferson had lots of records, that there was a lot to go on, and I just thought it was a worthwhile endeavor and I started working on that in 2000. Then 2001 interrupted me. We lived in Battery Park City, which was directly across from the World Trade Center tower that fell into our apartment. So there was a little bit of regrouping that needed to be done after that. We had to move. I really started working on the book on all cylinders probably in 2003.
Q: Can you tell me about your experience on 9/11?
A: I had taken my kids up to school on the Upper West Side. I was at Sam Goody’s record store in the World Trade Center plaza getting headphones and all of a sudden I heard a whoosh and a big wump and things in the store started falling. Then somebody yelled that a plane had hit the tower. It was chaos and we were trying to figure out how to get out of there. I went out toward the plaza, looked up and saw black smoke just billowing out of the tower and things falling like confetti. Everybody was saying get back inside and stay inside so I did. But it was a primary [election] day and my husband was handing out pamphlets in front of our apartment building, which was right nearby. I was panicked. I ran out of the south tower through a pretty gruesome scene so that I could cross the highway and then come back up to where my building was. I turned around briefly and saw the other plane banking and then of course we all just took off running — when I heard my husband calling me amid the commotion. We actually managed to find each other in this chaos. When we saw the second plane we knew this was not a mistake.
At that point, all we were thinking about was how to get uptown to get our kids. So we started uptown and we stopped off at my law school to find a landline so I could call my father and tell him I was OK, but as we were talking all the lines went dead, after we heard this huge rumble and the [first] tower came down. We got on a bus from Houston Street to Central Park West and walked up to 90th Street and got the kids.