Updated: Apr 6, 2021
Nick Powell | Houston Chronicle | November 27, 2020
Members of The Creatives stand behind mural artist Reginald Adams, front left and Sam Collins, a local historian, front right, at the location where a proposed mural honoring Juneteenth would be displayed in Galveston's Strand Historic District on Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. Members of The Creatives, a Houston-based art collective.
Photo: Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer
GALVESTON — On a drive through Galveston’s historic district this past summer, Sam Collins turned the corner of 22nd and Strand and passed a mostly blank gray wall of the Old Galveston Square building, near where a Union Army headquarters stood during the Civil War.
Six years ago, Collins stood at that same site as a historical marker commemorating June 19, 1865 — Juneteenth — was unveiled where Union Army Maj. General Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3. declaring “all slaves free.” Staring at the blank wall, Collins had an idea to further memorialize and bring context to that momentous day: a mural.
His first call was to Mitchell Historic Properties — the Galveston real estate arm of the late energy baron and developer George Mitchell and his wife, Cynthia — which owns the building that Collins hoped could become the canvas for the site.
“I got in contact with some individuals with the (Mitchell) family and made the suggestion that it’d be good to have a mural down there to tell the story of the United States Colored Troops coming in to Galveston and the Juneteenth story,” said Collins, a local historian. “Right now, people see the (historical) marker, but they really don’t know the story.”
While the mural is still in the planning stages — Mitchell Historic Properties is working to finalize the legal contracts pertaining to the project — the proposal cleared a final official hurdle when the Galveston Landmark Commission unanimously approved it on Nov. 2. Reginald Adams, a Houston-based public artist, has been commissioned for the Juneteenth mural, an assignment he called “an honor” due to its historical significance.
Adams said the theme and title of the mural will be “Absolute Equality,” speaking not only to the content of the painting itself but also to the design process. As he does with most of his public works — which include the “I am Jesse Owens” mural and “Fruits of Fifth Ward” ceramic tile mosaic in Houston — Adams plans for the Galveston mural to be a collaborative effort with island residents.
“What does it mean to say everyone is absolutely equal to each other? That’s a brilliant, broad, bold and somewhat ambiguous vision,” Adams said. “But we hope that the process that we use to bring this mural to life epitomizes ‘absolute equality,’ and how we plan to embody the title into our creative approach is engage as many people from as many different unique backgrounds as possible in the painting and the production of the mural itself.”
Adams said he hopes to have the project completed by spring, in time for the next Juneteenth celebration.
Looking at Juneteenth another way
The mural will be developed through a “gigantic paint-by-numbers system,” Adams said, with a giant nylon fabric acting as a canvas that can adhere to the stucco surface of the Old Galveston Square building, which was originally built in 1859. Adams and his team of professional artists at his design firm will act as guides for the community members who want to participate in the painting process, then add finishing touches toward the end.
“It gives the participant a chance to paint on something that they otherwise would never be able to do on their own,” Adams said. “And once all these pieces of material are completed, then they’re essentially installed like wallpaper.”
The aim is to recontextualize Juneteenth as a pivotal moment in the arc of Black history in the United States. It would display four portals depicting an evolutionary narrative with African slaves being marched onto slave ships; an image of Harriet Tubman, the leader of the Underground Railroad that ferried slaves to freedom north of the Mason-Dixon line; Abraham Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation; and most notably, Granger signing General Order No. 3 on Juneteenth, flanked by Black Union soldiers. (Although the Emancipation Proclamation officially outlawed slavery starting on Jan. 1, 1863, Texas’ 250,000 slaves gradually learned of their freedom in the months after the end of the Civil War).
“Every year we talk about Juneteenth, it’s the story of Gordon Granger in this message of freedom,” Collins said. “But in my 50-year life, I’ve never been to a Juneteenth celebration that centered around or highlighted the contributions of the United States Colored Troops, except for in passing conversation that, ‘Hey, you know, these troops did fight on the Union side.’”
By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 Black men had served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy, according to the National Archives.
The Juneteenth story, as Collins sees it, has become somewhat romanticized, a heroic tale with Granger, the white general, as the lead protagonist. But organizations such as the Juneteenth National Observance Foundation have uncovered a little-known aspect of that history — the presence of an African American Union Army troop regiment that, by coincidence, marched into Galveston at the same time as Granger. It provided a powerful image to the island’s slaves, who were completely oblivious to the fact that they had been granted freedom by Lincoln two years prior.
According to some historical accounts, the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry of Illinois, composed of recently liberated slaves, was set to sail from Virginia to Mobile, Ala., and then continue on to South Padre Island. Storms and rough seas on the long voyage sapped the infantry of coal and water, forcing it to divert to Galveston for supplies. Official records show that the regiment was in Galveston June 18-20, 1865, fortuitous timing that overlapped with Granger’s famous reading of General Order No. 3.
“I think it’s an interesting part of the story,” said Dwayne Jones, executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation. “I think it probably was symbolic to a lot of people (in Galveston) who saw (the troops).”
Teaching through the mural
The mural intends to rectify some of that lost history. Adams plans to include an augmented-reality element to the mural, where visitors can download an app on their smartphones and, by holding the phone up to the painting, view historical information about the images.
Sue Johnson, director of the Nia Cultural Center in Galveston, said there are plans to incorporate some of the history depicted on the mural into educational programs on equity, racial justice and the rich Black history of Galveston.
“A lot of that will spur from the (mural) as a kind of centerpiece,” Johnson said.
Collins hopes the completion of the mural will contribute to the groundswell of support for making Juneteenth a national holiday that has followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, have both introduced bills that would do so.
“While (Juneteenth) didn’t deliver everything, we hoped there was an evolution to a more perfect union,” he said. “So we have to realize that it was still an important date in our history.”