Annette Gordon-Reed’s lifelong interest in history became the platform for a curious phone call she received this fall. “I was stunned,” she told The Root. “I was totally expecting to hear [someone else] on the other end, and then [an unfamiliar voice] said, ‘Are you by yourself?’ Yes. ‘And are you sitting down?’ ” The man was calling to let her know that she was being granted the MacArthur Fellowship, that she would be given $500,000 and that she had to keep it a secret for about two weeks.
Gordon-Reed was given the Genius Award for her work in researching, evaluating and writing about a part of American history that many never wanted critically examined — namely, the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved young woman Sally Hemings. Gordon-Reed has written two books on the subject — Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997) and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family — and is currently working on the third in this series. Her first book took a year to write, but a lifetime to come to fruition.
Gordon-Reed says that when she was 12 years old, she became fascinated by the Hemings story after reading a book of her father’s called White Over Black by Wedford Johnson, which includes a mention of Jefferson and Hemings. “He didn’t say that [the story of their relationship] was true or not true, but that this was a possibility,” she says. “And I found that an interesting addition to thinking about slavery. It wasn’t just people working and not getting paid and being sold, but that people were having kids with slaves. I grew up in Texas, so I knew that this kind of thing happened, but it was interesting to see it in the context of Jefferson.”
And so as a teenager, young Annette Gordon — who learned about the importance of history from her parents and her great-grandmother, who used to sit and tell her stories for hours on end — developed a passion for learning more about this controversial story. Throughout her education, first at Dartmouth College and later at Harvard Law School, she never put away her interest. Instead, she devoted her undergraduate study to history, investing her time and resources in figuring out the truth about this unlikely couple. Though not an anthropologist, Gordon-Reed applied her lawyerly skills to her analysis.
She did receive some criticism for her approach. “There was some, ‘You’re not a historian, you’re a lawyer,’ ” she says. But the bigger issue was something she recognizes as all too common: “Black women are not typically seen as authorities on things other than relationships. Not in an intellectual kind of way.” She continues, “Even if what [people thought that what I was] saying is true, I think it may have been hard for people to hear it coming from me, because blackness is seen as suspect [by] some people.”
Gordon-Reed says she overcame the criticism by being very careful in her research and covering all angles when she wrote her books. That care paid off when Gordon-Reed’s hypothesis was proved accurate, thanks to DNA testing that verifies the relationship. The best revenge, however, may be the wellspring of awards that this professor of history at Harvard has received for her work.
Harriette Cole is a nationally syndicated advice columnist, best-selling author and contributing editor of The Root.