Review by David Starkey
While Annette Gordon-Reed’s On Juneteenth is, in part, about the new national holiday inspired by the events of June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, when Major General Gordon Granger announced the end of legalized slavery in that state—more than two months after the official end of the Civil War—the true subject of the book is the treatment of African-descended people by white Texans, and it is not a happy chronicle.
“History,” Gordon-Reed writes in the opening chapter, “is, to say the least, complicated,” but in this short book, which is as much memoir as it is historical analysis, the record of interactions between white and Black Texans doesn’t, in fact, seem especially complicated. Mostly, it’s just one long testament to how badly the former group has treated the latter.
One of Gordon-Reed’s central projects is upending the myth of “heroic” white Texas males like Jim Bowie, Sam Houston, Davy Crockett and Stephen F. Austin. Austin, for instance, “told everyone who would listen that, without slavery, the Anglo colonies would never fully succeed and Americans who came to Texas would surely be poor for the rest of their lives.” Her chapter entitled “Remember the Alamo” is a particularly poignant reminder that the men who fought for Texas independence—“Who could not want Texas to be independent?”—were doing so for less than noble reasons. In its brief life as an independent country (1836-1846), the Republic of Texas enshrined “the right to enslave,” and Texas entered the United States as an unequivocal “slave state.”
On Juneteenth describes beatings, shooting, lynchings—rank injustice of every sort—in the years after Texas joined the Union. While Gordon-Reed herself managed to avoid the worst of this—indeed, she acknowledges that her white teachers did care about her when she was growing up—she also recognizes that although she and her teachers “shared a common culture as Texans,…that culture had been subdivided by race.”
Gordon-Reed is an important public figure, so in some ways it makes sense that she would temper her remarks; nevertheless, the facts she presents rattle against the cage of her measured commentary. In Chapter 2, for instance, she describes the 1973 murder of eighteen-year-old Gregory Steele by police in the local jail. No one, of course, was punished, but Gordon-Reed’s comment on the crime, which took place two days before Christmas, is simply, “Our hearts were too heavy for unbridled celebration.”
In the book’s Coda, she seems to anticipate responses like mine: “When asked, as I have been very often, to explain what I love about Texas, given all that I know of what has happened there—and is still happening there—the best response I can give is that this is where my first family and connections were.” Be that as it may, when Gordon-Reed ends her book by declaring that she hopes she has “achieved the proper equilibrium,” all I can say as a reader is that, based on the evidence she has presented, the Lone Star State has much to atone for.