The Tensions That Roiled Texas

Photograph of someone wearing a Juneteenth T-shirt
Juneteenth pride: commemorating June 19 in 2020, in Greenwood, the site of the Tulsa, Oklahoma, race massacre of 1921Photograph by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Loeb University Professor Annette Gordon-Reed is best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning history, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. Her slender new book, On Juneteenth (Liveright / W.W. Norton, $15.95), is part history, part memoir and meditation on her own growing up in Texas, the original home to Juneteenth—the commemoration of the June 19, 1865, proclamation that slavery had ended in that state, and of late, a nationally recognized and now Harvard official holiday. She sets the stage with a brisk overview of the historical state. From the first chapter:

 

When I was growing up, we took Texas history twice….I cannot say with certainty that slavery was never mentioned. Of course, I didn’t need school to tell me that Blacks had been enslaved in Texas. I heard references to slavery from my parents and grandparents.…And we celebrated Juneteenth… But if slavery was mentioned…, it didn’t figure prominently enough in our lessons to give us a clear and complete picture of the role the institution played in the state’s early development.…

But contention over slavery had been present from the moment Stephen Austin, and his father before him, had dreamed of bringing White colonists to a new version of a promised land. Many of the people who heeded Austin’s call came with clenched teeth and balled-up fists, so to speak. They arrived with both insecurity and defiance, knowing that a significant number of people, within Texas and without, viewed their way of life—enslaving people—with abhorrence.…

It should come as no surprise that my teachers were not inclined to deal with all of this, and they were not likely alone in this regard.…There was no point in dwelling on the past. Texas was all about the future, about what came next—the next cattle drive, the next oil well, the next space flight directed by NASA’s Mission Control in Houston.

Except, we did dwell on the past. We were exhorted to “Remember the Alamo” and to “Remember Goliad,” famous events in Texas’s fight for independence from Mexico. Why were those things to be remembered, while the history of an important reason Stephen F. Austin came to Texas, and all that flowed from that fateful decision to put slavery at the heart of Texas, to be forgotten? The question is especially important because while legalized slavery ended, the racially based hierarchy it put in place remained, poisoning the well of social relations in Texas over the ensuing decades. Very significantly, this was not just a matter of a Black/White divide. After the successful creation of Texas, White settlers moved to displace the Tejanos, who had originally welcomed the Anglos as potential allies against Native Americans, people who had their own claims to the land. No other state brings together so many disparate and defining characteristics all in one—a state that shares a border with a foreign nation, a state with a long history of disputes between Europeans and an indigenous population and between Anglo-Europeans and people of Spanish origin, a state that had existed as an independent nation, that had plantation-based slavery and legalized Jim Crow.

Any one of these things would leave a mark on a place. Having them all together…accounts for Texas’s extreme nature, such deep internal complexities creating tensions that roil.…As big as it is, that is still a lot for any one state to handle.

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