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About the Author

Annette Gordon-Reed grew up in east Texas. She majored in History at Dartmouth College, graduating in 1981, and then attended Harvard Law School. Gordon-Reed worked as an associate at Cahill Gordon & Reindel and was Counsel to the New York City Board of Corrections before becoming a professor of show more law at New York Law School in 1992. Gordon-Reed wrote the book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy after first becoming interested in the president as a child. She co-authored Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir and wrote Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History. Gordon-Reed is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Hemingses of Monticello. (Bowker Author Biography) show less
Image credit: Courtesy of the Pulitzer Prizes.

Works by Annette Gordon-Reed

Associated Works

Thomas Jefferson: Genius of Liberty (2000) — Contributor — 84 copies
Racism in America: A Reader (2020) — Foreword — 24 copies
Slavery and the American South (2003) — Contributor — 9 copies


Common Knowledge



Historian Annette Gordon-Reed, a Black native of Texas, discusses her home state’s checkered history in this brief volume. Her focus is on the ongoing, complicated legacy of chattel slavery and its corrosive effect on Black-Native-White relationships from early settlements to this day. Both family stories and official accounts inform her work.

The book contains less information on Juneteenth than the title implies, but it does reward the short time it takes to read it.
akblanchard | 17 other reviews | Dec 27, 2023 |
recommended by Hassan Adeeb
pollycallahan | 17 other reviews | Jul 1, 2023 |
A quick eye opening audiobook that I was quite fortunate to have discovered.
GeauxGetLit | 17 other reviews | May 27, 2023 |
This is a MUST read.

In 1962 I was a first year man, that's what we called freshmen, at Mr. Jefferson's University of Virginia. In Charlottesville all revered Thomas Jefferson. His life was chronicled by renown historian Dumas Malone whose words were gospel. This was long before UVa went coed and before it became one of the nation's pre-eminent state schools. We went to class in jacket and ties and all exams were conducted without proctors as we all subscribed to its honor code. Yes we knew that political opponents accused our beloved Mr. Jefferson of dishonoring his promise on his wife's deathbed to never remarry by taking a Black slave as his mistress. We all dismissed such heresy as the downside of a life in politics. Surely here in Charlottesville someone would have known. This story had lasted more than a hundred years by that point. Little did we know.

Then in 1998 we learn that there was DNA evidence supporting the claims of the Hemings family that they were descended from Thomas Jefferson. Yes Jefferson had been a slaveholder but now this. Time to reassess.

This book takes off the blinders. It shows how Jefferson came to marry into a family that already had a history of racial mixing with several children of interracial relations, some of these relationships of many year duration. Sarah 'Sally' Hemings was already the half-sister of Jefferson's wife, Martha. Martha's White father, John Wayles was also Sally's father making Sally three-quarters White. In Virginia of that period she was Black. The marriage made Jefferson one of the wealthiest men in Virginia as well as one of the largest landowners and a slave owner. We had long known he had been a slaveowner but the author of the Declaration of Independence with its immortal words "all men are created equal", must have been a reluctant slave owner and surely a benevolent one, right?

Annette Gordon-Reed brings a unique perspective to this story. As a historian she knows how to work through original source material and has read what other historians have uncovered. As a lawyer she is able to bring in the legal context which defined the situation that many of these people were working under. As a person of color she could bring great insight into what the enslaved people were faced with every day. She understood what it meant to be considered less than a person, ignored, and not listened to. And as a women she provided insight into the mindset of the women involved. Lastly she brought empathy. She was able to see the world from the point of view of the people involved. An extraordinary combination. Given the lack of historical records she often needed to able to assess what the possible alternatives might have been.

The Hemings family is the real focus of this book. While Jefferson is a major player, and the major events of his life drive much of what happens, it's the people around him that we are learning about. Elizabeth Hemings is the matriarch. She is daughter of an African woman and Captain Hemings making her already the product of an inter-racial relationship and half-White. She has a long relationship with John Wayles and, along with several other children, has a daughter Sarah 'Sally'. Upon Wayles death Jefferson inherits 130 slaves, among them Sally.

Jefferson's relationship with Sally appears to have started while they were in Paris. Jefferson spent five years there as the American Ambassador and eventually decided to have his daughters join him there. At the last moment Sally was sent along as the servant to one of the daughters. She joined her older brother James who was being trained to be a French chef for Jefferson. France already had outlawed slavery and both of them were aware that they could easily gain their freedom by just presenting themselves to the French courts. We don't know when the affair started but the beautiful teenaged Sally was pregnant before they returned to Virginia. Gordon-Reed examines why Sally and her brother chose to return with Jefferson to Virginia. While there are no records to rely on Gordon-Reed concludes that they were choosing family over freedom. But in each case there were promises from Jefferson. James would eventually be freed but young Sally extracted a promise that her offspring would be freed when they became adults. This was a promise Jefferson had every legal right to break once they were back in Virginia, but she believed in Jefferson's honor.

The story tracks their life together until Jefferson's death. In some sense we learn that the main characters got what they wanted. Jefferson got a concubine. Sally got lifetime support and freedom for her offspring. The Hemings got preferential treatment. Jefferson's White daughters got an uncontested inheritance which would not have been the case if Jefferson had decided to remarry a White woman. Even if he had done the unthinkable of marrying Sally she could not have inherited any of Jefferson's property, she was his property. What they all needed to make this work was secrecy. They all knew Sally was never to be written of so there is virtually no record of her. A coverup that lasted more than a hundred years. After Jefferson's death members of the Hemings family including Sally blended into both the White and Black worlds. Sally even lived in Charlottesville. Or C-ville as we used to call it. Little did we know.
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Ed_Schneider | 31 other reviews | Mar 1, 2023 |



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