Campus & Community

Annette Gordon-Reed named University Professor

Renowned historian, Pulitzer winner, receives highest Harvard faculty honor

5 min read
Annette Gordon-Reed

Courtesy of Annette Gordon-Reed

Annette Gordon-Reed, the Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard Law School and professor of history in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, has been named a University Professor, Harvard’s highest faculty honor.

One of the nation’s most accomplished historians and legal scholars, Gordon-Reed is admired throughout academia for the cross-disciplinary lens through which she studies American history. Her scholarship has reframed the historical dialogue about slavery and enslaved peoples in the United States by enhancing America’s understanding of race in the Colonial era, and her biographies of key figures in American history, including the Hemings family of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Johnson, have brought a new light to the contemporary interpretations of their lives and work.

“Annette Gordon-Reed has changed how people think about America,” said Harvard President Larry Bacow. “Through her extraordinarily incisive scholarship, she carefully reveals truth and, in the process, urges all of us to confront our past and present so that we might imagine a better future. Her voice has never been more important to our national conversation, and I am thrilled that she will join the ranks of the University’s most celebrated faculty members.”

John F. Manning, the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and professor of law at Harvard Law School, said, “I am delighted that the University has recognized my colleague Annette Gordon-Reed with the honor of serving as the Carl M. Loeb University Professor. Professor Gordon-Reed is a superb historian who has fundamentally remade our understanding of family and domestic relations in the history of enslaved people in the United States and prompted a profound reckoning with contradictions in the life of Thomas Jefferson. Professor Gordon-Reed is also an exceptional and tireless contributor to the Harvard community, willing time and time again to bring her tremendous skill, wisdom, and integrity to critical assignments on behalf of both the Law School and the University.”

Claudine Gay, the Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Wilbur A. Cowett Professor of Government and of African and African-American Studies, said, “This is wonderful recognition of Annette’s seminal contributions to our understanding of American history, including our most harrowing tragedies and painful contradictions. She reminds us of the transformative power of academic discovery. I am thrilled by this appointment.”

Gordon-Reed’s first book, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy” (1997), directly took on the topic of whether Jefferson and Hemings had children together. In it she successfully challenged the accepted view that they did not by carefully examining the underlying assumptions of past historians and cross-checking historical documents, accounts, statements, and Hemings family oral tradition.

Her second ground-breaking work on the subject, “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” brought three generations of the family to life and shined an uncommon light on the lives of African American slaves in the period. Published in 2008, the book provoked a national discussion of early American race relations and earned Gordon-Reed the Pulitzer Prize in History and the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Gordon-Reed was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2009.

“Annette Gordon-Reed has changed how people think about America.”

Larry Bacow, University president

Her many other honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship in the Humanities, a MacArthur Fellowship, and a fellowship from the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011 and into the membership of the American Philosophical Society in 2019.

“I’m thrilled at the news of this deep honor, especially to be succeeding my Con Law professor, Larry Tribe,” Gordon-Reed said. “I am so glad to be able to share this joy with my husband, Robert, whom I met at HLS the first week of class at the BLSA picnic when we were 1Ls, and our children Susan ’12 and Gordon, Dartmouth ’15. I only wish my parents were alive to share this. Both supported my every endeavor and would be equally thrilled. My mother’s belief in me was total. The honors I’ve received are her doing.”

Originally from East Texas, Gordon-Reed earned an A.B. in history from Dartmouth College in 1981 and went on to receive her J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1984. After graduating, she briefly became a corporate lawyer and then counsel for the New York City Board of Correction. Soon after, she joined the faculty of New York Law School (NYLS) in 1993.

After 17 years at NYLS, during which she became the Wallace Stevens Professor of Law, and serving as the Board of Governors Professor of History at Rutgers University-Newark, Gordon-Reed became a visiting professor at Harvard Law School in 2009. In 2010, she joined the faculty as the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School and as a professor of history in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

A recipient of three honorary degrees, she was previously the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She has also been a visiting professor at New York University, and was the Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History at Queen’s College.

President of the Ames Foundation at Harvard Law School, past president of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, and trustee emerita of Dartmouth College, Gordon-Reed has performed extraordinary public service for the Harvard community. She has served on the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, the President’s Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, and also the committee to examine whether to retire the Law School’s shield.

The University Professorships were established in 1935 to recognize individuals whose work on the frontiers of knowledge crossed the traditional boundaries of academic disciplines.

Gordon-Reed will occupy the University Professorship held since 2004 by constitutional scholar Laurence H. Tribe, who retired on June 30.