Honoring Juneteenth Through Art in Galveston

Alina Tugend | The New York Times | May 23, 2021


A 5,000-square-foot mural in Galveston, Texas, at the spot where Gen. Gordon Granger issued the orders that resulted in the freedom of more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state. Reginald C. Adams of Houston is the artist. Montinique Monroe for The New York Times


More than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, slavery was abolished in Texas.


This June, Galveston will dedicate a 5,000-square-foot mural, entitled “Absolute Equality,” on the spot where Gen. Gordon Granger issued the orders that resulted in the freedom of more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in Texas. The Southern states refused to obey the Proclamation during the war.


The date of the Texas order was June 19, 1865, which is now celebrated around the country as Juneteenth (or Freedom Day, Emancipation Day or Jubilee Day). Some companies are recognizing the day as a paid holiday, and there are efforts to make it a federal one.


The mural “sprinkles the hard bitter truth with sugar,” said Reginald C. Adams, a Houston artist who was commissioned to create the art. “The sugar is the beauty and energy of the mural, while the bitter truth is that for two and a half years, people were held in slavery against a federal declaration.”


The theme of the brightly colored work is “absolute equality,” drawing from the words used in the General Order No. 3, which officially ended slavery in Texas. It reads, in part: “This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.” The entire order is written at the bottom of the mural.


A detail from the mural: General Granger seated, signing an order giving the Union control of Texas, which led to the Juneteenth order. Behind stands one white Union soldier and four soldiers from the United States Colored Troops.Credit...Montinique Monroe for The New York Times


The entire order is written at the bottom of the mural.Credit...Montinique Monroe for The New York Times


The mural includes the story of an enslaved Moorish navigator who was shipwrecked off the coast of Galveston in 1528, the first recorded nonnative slave to arrive in the territory, said Samuel Collins III, a historian and co-chairman of the Juneteenth Legacy Project. Many more would follow.


The mural moves on to Harriet Tubman and Lincoln, who is holding a chain with a broken manacle. And there is General Granger seated, signing an order giving the Union control of Texas, which led to the Juneteenth order. Behind stands one white Union soldier and four soldiers from the United States Colored Troops.


The story told on the mural ends with a parade of people marching (including one in a wheelchair) and an astronaut with a clenched fist on his or her uniform — all of them moving toward the goal of absolute equality. It also includes a section with artwork by local young people.


“This is more than just a mural — it’s more than just paint on the wall,” Mr. Collins said. “I think this corner has been transformed into an outdoor classroom.”


Samuel Collins III, co-chairman of the Juneteenth Legacy Project, in front of a reflection of the mural. Credit...Montinique Monroe for The New York Times


The mural has some accompanying educational elements, including a written and spoken word poetry contest for middle- and high-school students and undergraduates in the Houston area explaining what “absolute equality” means to them.


Visitors will also be able to use their phone to scan portions of the mural to learn more, through augmented reality videos, about the stories portrayed.


Mr. Collins was the driving force behind the mural. Born in Galveston, he has researched Black history, particularly in Texas. Although there are commemorations of Juneteenth in Galveston — it was declared a state holiday in 1979 — Mr. Collins felt more was needed.


He read an article in The Galveston News by Sheridan Mitchell Lorenz, a philanthropist who lives in Austin but has deep ties to Galveston. In the piece, written shortly after the murder of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis, Ms. Lorenz noted that as a white woman, “I’m complicit if I don’t use my voice to acknowledge and speak out against systemic racism.”


Mr. Collins reached out to Ms. Lorenz about his mural idea because he liked her article, and knew that her family owned the retail space Old Galveston Square and adjoining parking lot.


A plaque near the mural commemorating Juneteenth. Credit...Montinique Monroe for The New York Times


That parking lot is where the Osterman building housing Union Army headquarters once stood and where General Granger issued the order. And there was a huge blank wall. Mr. Collins proposed an idea to Ms. Lorenz: What about putting a mural there depicting the scene?


“I got chills thinking about that,” said Ms. Lorenz, as she recalled receiving Mr. Collins’s email. “I thought, ‘How come we didn’t think of that sooner — what an opportunity!’”


Ms. Lorenz donated the seed money. She now heads the Juneteenth Legacy Project with Mr. Collins, and the project received additional financing from a GoFundMe page and individual and foundation donors. At the same time, the project was gathering local government approval.


Mr. Adams seemed a natural choice to design the mural, Ms. Lorenz said, with his background in public art.


“This was the smoothest approval process I’ve ever experienced for a work of art,” Mr. Adams said.


Mr. Adams, center, with his creative team.Credit...Montinique Monroe for The New York Times


Erika Doss, an art historian who has written about public art, called the mural and its related initiatives “a gigantic project,” adding that public art such as this one “has grown out of a very politicized moment.”


The goal, she said, is “creating something meaningful for a community that tells a different kind of history and gets people talking about history.”


Dr. Doss did note that murals often aren’t maintained and fade very quickly, but Ms. Lorenz said the project has built in fund-raising for upkeep.


Not everyone is pleased with the mural. Mr. Collins said that he had heard some criticism that two white men — President Lincoln and General Granger — appear too prominently.


He understands that sentiment, but said he believes that “all these people were part of the story. There are people in the Confederacy who want it to be an all-white story, and those who are more Afrocentric that might feel it should be an all-Black story, but that’s just not our reality in America,” he said. “It took everyone to work together to bring this message of freedom, and it will continue to take all of us to try to achieve this absolute equality that we hope for.”


Mr. Collins also noted that General Granger was deliberately portrayed as seated, with the four members of the United States Colored Troops standing over him “as men and patriots.”


Jeff Mahoney recently stumbled upon the mural while visiting from California. “The imagery is fantastic,” he said. It captures “celebration, but also skepticism” about the progress of racial equity. Mr. Mahoney, who was visiting the South for the first time, said he felt that the mural signifies hope “It shows change,” he said. “We need more of this.”