Pulitzer Prize winner Annette Gordon-Reed reflects on her personal history

Historians in the News
tags: Pulitzer Prize, Annette Gordon Reed



For as long as she can remember, Annette Gordon-Reed wanted to write. As a child, she loved words and books, especially biographies, and was all of 7 when she became an author herself. More than four decades later, “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family” brought a Pulitzer Prize and recognition as a major historian of U.S. slavery.

Gordon-Reed’s path to Harvard — she is the Law School’s Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History and a professor of history in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences — is every bit as interesting as her pioneering scholarship.

Born in 1958 and educated in racially divided East Texas, she studied history at Dartmouth before choosing Harvard Law School over Yale (nearly breaking into a postal box when she realized she’d mailed the wrong acceptance letter). After stints as a corporate lawyer and as counsel for the New York City Board of Corrections, Gordon-Reed joined the faculty of New York Law School in 1993. The next year, she began working on “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy” (1997), in which she defied long-held historical assumptions by marshaling evidence to show that Jefferson was the father of Hemings’ five children, a thesis soon upheld by DNA tests.

Gordon-Reed’s work as a professor and historian was interrupted on Sept. 11, 2001, when debris from the World Trade Center destroyed the Manhattan apartment where she lived with her husband and two children. “We could easily not have been OK,” she says. “Our kids could have been orphaned, so it was a terrible and traumatic thing. It’s something that I don’t think about a lot.”

Today, she is the author or co-author of six works of history, including a biography of America’s 17th president, Andrew Johnson, and, most recently, “The Most Blessed of Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination,” with Peter S. Onuf. In addition to the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for History, Gordon-Reed’s accolades include a National Book Award, the National Humanities Medal, a MacArthur “genius” grant, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. ...





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