Gordon-Reed, Annette

views updated


PERSONAL: Born in Livingston, TX; married; children: Susan and Gordon. Ethnicity: "Black." Education: Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, A.B., 1981; Harvard University, J.D., 1984.

ADDRESSES: Offıce—New York Law School, 57 Worth St., New York, NY 10013; fax: 212-431-9205. E-mail—[email protected].

CAREER: Cahill Gordon & Reindel (law firm), New York, NY, associate; New York City Board of Correction, New York, NY, counsel; New York Law School, New York, NY, professor, 1992—.

AWARDS, HONORS: American History Roundtable Achievement award, 1988; Association of Black Women Attorneys Achievement Award, 1988; Woman of Power and Influence award, National Organization for Women, 1999; best non-fiction book, Black Caucus of the American Library Association, 2001; Anisfeld-Wolf book award for Vernon Can Read,2002.


Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An AmericanControversy, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1997.

(With Vernon E. Jordan) Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir, Public Affairs (New York, NY), 2001, 2nd edition, Thorndike Press (Waterville, ME), 2002.

(Editor) Race on Trial: Law and Justice in AmericanHistory, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2002.

Contributor to books, including Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA) 1999; Thomas Jefferson: Genius of Liberty, Viking Press (New York, NY), 2000; Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family, Random House (New York, NY), 2001; Jubilee: The Emergence of African-American Culture, National Geographic Publishing 2003; Slavery and Its Aspects, University Press of Mississippi (Oxford, Mississippi), 2003.

Contributor to periodicals, including New York School Law Review, William and Mary Quarterly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Washington Times.

WORK IN PROGRESS: A volume of essays with Vernon Jordan, 2006; a biography of Andrew Johnson, Times Books, 2006.

SIDELIGHTS: Growing up black in an east Texas town where segregation still reigned, Annette Gordon-Reed began her life's work as a critic of American racism and an active participant in the historical advancement of people of color. Her first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, propelled her to fame as an authority on the nowdocumented affair between President Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, one of his black slaves. Gordon-Reed has continued to document what she calls "black people's input and black people's participation in American society" by coauthoring political figure Vernon E. Jordan's memoir Vernon Can Read! Her fervor for the rights of blacks have led to an array of works, from editing Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History to numerous extrapolations on the controversial lineage and miscegenation of the Hemings family, as well as other families in nineteenth-century America.

As a little girl, Gordon-Reed took a keen interest in the historical legend of Thomas Jefferson. Because of this fascination, she read Fawn Brodie's biography Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Portrait, published in 1974. Through this white woman writer's words, she first encountered Jefferson's alleged thirty-eight-year affair with his enslaved chambermaid and seamstress Sally Hemings. "Jefferson has been called the personification of America," Gordon-Reed told Frontline. "For some people, there's enormous symbolic value if the personification of America mixed his blood with a black person."

Gordon-Reed grew up to be a New York-based lawyer and began collecting evidence about the affair. Many prominent people refuted the affair without hard facts, which bothered Gordon-Reed. Additionally, they discounted the Hemings family's stories of their lineage to the famous president, claiming that the manner in which Madison Hemings spoke was too educated for the son of a slave and that his story could not possibly be true. To Gordon-Reed, this dismissal of Madison's story could be seen as an affirmation of a stereotype that a black man, despite coming from a well-traveled and educated black mother and white father, could not converse on the level of whites. Gordon-Reed decided to weigh the evidence she had collected in book form.

As a writer who draws on her experience in law, Gordon-Reed was praised by Stephanie M. H. Camp in Mississippi Quarterly for treating "her evidence with a lawyer's precision, rather than the historian's search for patterns." New Republic contributor Sean Wilentz called Gordon-Reed a "scrupulous investigator who refuses to commit herself either way." In a Publishers Weekly review, she was described as "a law professor . . . who writes like a lawyer" making the book a "dry presentation." Ervin L. Jordan, Jr. explained that "she includes helpful sections such as a genealogical table . . . , a 'Summary of Evidence,' and a 'Key to Important Names'" making this book "the best overall study of this issue." While the discussion was still being assessed without the aid of DNA evidence, Gordon-Reed's conclusions seemed to point to the validity of the affair. Shortly after, the DNA evidence affirmed that at least one child was the offspring of Hemings and Jefferson. Wilentz concluded "it is only further proof that intimacy between black and white, and the possibility of decency between black and white, existed even in conditions of brutal racial oppression, and so may exist in the bettered but still troubled conditions in which we now live."

Political leader Vernon E. Jordan was so moved by Gordon-Reed's work on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings that he phoned her office to ask her help in compiling his memoir. Vernon Can Read! chronicles the assent of Jordan as a summer chauffeur whose segregationist employer exclaims the title of the memoir when he finds Jordan reading during his breaks to Jordan's career as an influential civil rights leader, to his public status as an informal adviser to President Clinton. New York Times reviewer Roy Reed remarked that the book "by necessity is more than a success story. It is also a recollection of the pain suffered and the bravery asserted by so many black Americans . . . in the struggle for political and economic equality." Angela Dodson called Gordon-Reed's contribution to Vernon Can Read! "smooth and invisible, convincing in the first person as Jordan speaks eloquently for himself" in Black Issues Book Review. Dodson referred to the book as "part political science primer, part civil rights textbook and part motivational tool."



Black Issues Book Review, January-February, 2000, Angela Dodson, review of Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir, pp. 68-69.

Library Journal, December 2001, Karl Helicher, review of Vernon Can Read! pp.138-139.

Mississippi Quarterly, spring, 2000, Stephanie M. H. Camp, review of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings p. 275.

New Republic, March 10, 1997, Sean Wilentz, review of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings pp. 32-42.

New York Times Book Review, November 4, 2001, Roy Reed, "The Will to Rise," p. 30.

Publishers Weekly, February 3, 1997, review of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, p. 84; October 15, 2001, Emily Chenoweth, "PW Talks with Annette Gordon-Reed," p. 63.


Frontline,http://www.pbs.org/ (July 25, 2002), interview with Annette Gordon-Reed.

New York Law School,http://www.nyls.edu/ (April 10, 2002), "Annette Gordon-Reed."

About this article

Gordon-Reed, Annette

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article