Annette Gordon-Reed discusses law, culture, and legacies of slavery at annual Derrick Bell Lecture

Annette Gordon-Reed, Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School, gave the 17th Annual Derrick Bell Lecture on November 7. The author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy and The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, Gordon-Reed spoke about how the law shapes historical understanding, particularly in the case of the family history of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

Gordon-Reed said she was initially drawn to the topic of Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with Sally Hemings because she saw the manner in which most historians approached the question as problematic. “One of the things I noticed about the way biographers wrote about Jefferson and Hemings is that they discounted the word of slave people who said that this liaison took place,” she said. “At the same time, they looked at the words of the Jefferson family—white upper-class, slaveholding people—as though they were sacrosanct.” 

In Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, which was published in 1998, Gordon-Reed argued that the Hemings family was telling the truth that Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’ children. It was not until after the publication of her book that a DNA study was able to confirm her argument. “It is not very often that historians make claims, and then science comes to answer them,” Gordon-Reed said. “It was a bigger issue to me than whether Tom and Sally had children together. I was interested in proving how white supremacy infected the writing of history.”

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, published in 2008, presented the story of the family of Sally Hemings—a story history overlooks, Gordon-Reed said, because of the lack of legal protection for slave families. “Law helps construct our understanding of what we think family is," she said. Whereas the story of the Jefferson family is easy to trace through legal documents such as marriage licenses, for slave families, there is no such document trail. In her book, Gordon-Reed wanted to demonstrate how families such as the Hemingses would keep their families intact, even without the protection of law.

In her lecture, Gordon-Reed paid tribute to the late Derrick Bell as an important influence in her career as a legal historian. Her very first publication was a review of Bell's book, And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice. Seeing that Bell's writing traversed beyond the realm of work normally expected of law professors, Gordon-Reed was inspired to pursue her own interest in the history of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

The Derrick Bell Lecture was originally established in 1995 in celebration of Bell's 65th birthday. This year's lecture, the second since his passing, honored his life and work, and included a musical performance, as well as remarks from NYU President John Sexton and Janet Bell. "Derrick Bell was an example of someone who broke the mold, who did things that he thought were important, and that would make a contribution to the world," said Gordon-Reed.

Watch the full video of the lecture (1 h 35 min):

Posted November 26, 2012