For generations, evidence documenting the individual lives of enslaved African Americans was regarded as irredeemably lost in the all-encompassing generality of “slavery.” Memoirs of slavery were rare, records assumed to be nonexistent.
No historian has done more to recover the stories of enslaved blacks than Annette Gordon-Reed, whose 2008 book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in History, as well as wide acclaim, for its subtle portrayal of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and the remarkable, multigenerational Hemings family. “It is important to see enslaved people as individuals, which in turn enables us to see their humanity,” says Gordon-Reed, who teaches law at New York Law School and history at Rutgers University. “I want people to see and care about the Hemingses as if they were people they might know personally.”
While it is true that records of enslaved Americans can be frustratingly skimpy, historians often failed to examine the records that did exist. As the property of one of the most famous men in America, the Hemingses left a more visible paper trail than most slaves of their era—a trail which Gordon-Reed followed through years of research into the outermost reaches of Jefferson’s and the Hemingses’ lives in America and in Europe. Her rendering of their stories was further enriched by a subtle and exhaustive combing of source material drawn from the slave-based society of Virginia.
In her writing, Gordon-Reed refuses to settle for easy generalizations about intimate relations between master and slave. Even within the constraints of slavery, she makes clear, slaves made choices. For example, young Sally Hemings and her brother James, who accompanied Jefferson to Paris, could have remained in France, where they would have been accepted as free. Instead, they chose to return with Jefferson to their lives as slaves in Virginia. Gordon-Reed eventually concluded that, for the Hemingses, family trumped freedom. “For African Americans, family was a refuge from the pain of being declared an inferior being,” she says. “They came back to the place where their humanity would be affirmed the way that it was not in the outside community. It was logical for them to return to Virginia.” That said, Gordon-Reed adds, writing about Jefferson and the Hemingses “has given me a greater appreciation for the tragic aspect of life.”
Building on her provocative 1997 book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, Gordon-Reed argues in The Hemingses of Monticello that Jefferson fathered seven children by his young slave Sally Hemings in the course of a relationship that lasted thirty-eight years, until Jefferson’s death in 1826. Gordon-Reed’s investigation and subsequent DNA testing of Hemings’s descendents have convinced most historians of Jefferson’s paternity. Gordon-Reed is also the coauthor of a memoir by longtime civil rights activist and presidential adviser Vernon Jordan, and the editor of an anthology, Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History, illustrating how race has often determined the outcome of American trials.
She is currently at work on no fewer than four books. A biography of President Andrew Johnson will be published in the fall. A sequel to The Hemingses of Monticello will carry the story of the Hemings family into the early twentieth century. An anthology, Jefferson: A Reader on Race, is also in the works. And she has recently embarked on the research for what she anticipates will become a two- or three-volume biography of Jefferson himself.
Gordon-Reed grew up in the racially segregated town of Conroe, Texas, in an era when local African Americans still remembered the 1920s lynching of a black man who was burned alive on the local courthouse steps. In 1965, she was the first child to integrate the town’s all-white schools. “I felt as if I were on display,” she says. “I remember delegations of white people coming to the classroom door to stare at me.” Although the authorities did not obstruct her attendance—her mother was a respected teacher at the town’s all-black school—she later learned that anonymous threats were made against both her and her family.
She went on to graduate from Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, and then practiced law in New York City, where she was also counsel to the New York City Board of Corrections. The law, she found, provided good training for the historian’s craft. “Being a lawyer taught me to pick apart people’s stories, and to walk through cases which are really comprised of competing stories, and to spot problems with them,” says Gordon-Reed, whose husband, Robert Reed, is a family court judge in the Bronx. “History is a wilderness of lies and unstated truths, particularly with respect to slavery. I want to journey through that wilderness.”
Gordon-Reed’s lifelong interest in Jefferson began when, as a third grader, she stumbled upon a young people’s biography of the third president, and learned that they shared a common love of books. At the same time, she was troubled by the book’s portrayal of a slave boy as “a person of no consequence.” At fourteen, she joined the Book-of-the-Month Club, just so that she could read Fawn Brodie’s biography of Jefferson, the first to seriously address the relationship between him and the enslaved Sally Hemings. Asked if she likes Jefferson, she pauses to consider. Finally she says, “I’m not sure that ‘like’ is the right word. I’m fascinated by him. I like his curiosity. And I like that he sets out to be a force in the world, and does it.”
By Fergus M. Bordewich
Fergus M. Bordewich’s most recent book is Washington: The Making of the American Capital.