Chris Gray | Houston Chronicle | June 14, 2021
Reginald Adams' 5,000 square-foot work, to be dedicated Saturday, stands at the site where the order was given for enslaved Texans to be freed.
Reginald Adams has seen the future. Not really, but the acclaimed Houston artist has a pretty good idea what might happen once Galveston’s tourists get a good look at “Absolute Equality,” the new Juneteenth mural his six-artist team recently painted in the Strand historic district.
“In a few months, those cruise ships are going to start rolling in,” Adams says. “Every time they dock, thousands of people are going to get off those ships and walk a block down Kempner Avenue, 22nd Street, and they’re going to be confronted with that artwork. Everybody who sees that will be introduced to the story of Juneteenth.”
Adams doesn’t mind that the mural might be a rude awakening for some people. “It’s going to slap you in the face,” he says. “And if you’re curious, you’re going to want to know a little bit more.”
This is where the Juneteenth Legacy Project, the Galveston nonprofit that commissioned the mural, comes in. Juneteenth, the anniversary marking the day slavery ended in Texas — a full two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — has been a state holiday since 1980. Support for making it a federal holiday has ballooned in the wake of last year’s mass protests for racial justice; such a bill is currently pending before Congress.
On June 19, 1865, Gen. Gordon Granger, commander of the Union army in Texas, issued General Order No. 3, which read, in part, “the people of Texas are informed that … all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.” Public celebrations of Juneteenth, sometimes known as Jubilee Day or Freedom Day, appeared almost immediately.
Over the years, however, the popular narrative surrounding Juneteenth has narrowed to the point where most people don’t realize that 75 percent of the soldiers under Granger’s command were Black. Galveston-area historian Sam Collins III, president of the Juneteenth Legacy Project, sees Adams’ mural as a big step toward setting the record straight.
“While we’re taught to remember the Alamo, which was a loss, we’re not taught to remember these soldiers, (who) actually won the Civil War,” Collins says. “So how is it that that information hasn’t been shared or taught in our classrooms? Well, it was intentionally left out, and now we have to correct the record.”
At 40 feet tall and 125 feet long — a full 5,000 square feet — Adams’ mural indeed depicts Granger sitting at a desk signing documents. It also shows a map of slave routes from Africa to the New World; leading abolitionist Harriet Tubman; Black Union troops marching into battle; Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation and a pair of empty manacles; a silhouetted Juneteenth parade shown in profile; and an astronaut in Buffalo Soldier colors gazing over an extraterrestrial horizon. People who scan the mural using the Uncover Everything AR app can unlock supplemental video content.
Adams, whose other works include the “I Can’t Breathe” George Floyd mural in Midtown and the “Elements of Change” mosaics in Emancipation Park, thinks the new mural “puts sugar on the bitter truth of slavery in America.”
“It makes it a little easier to digest — like, what really happened, and what can we do now to move forward?” he explains. “I think the power of art is to create those kind of conversations, even with folks (who) may not be believers.”
Lately, the mural has drawn national and international media attention to Galveston, a city that has sometimes been circumspect about embracing its role in Juneteenth’s origins. Scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Saturday, the mural’s official dedication is part of a day that also includes a celebration at Ashton Villa; a parade; a festival; a discussion between Collins and other historians at The Grand 1894 Opera House; and an evening march to Reedy Chapel, a nearby church that became one of the first places Granger’s order was read aloud.
“I think we’ve missed an opportunity to make sure the world knew that this is the birthplace,” says Collins. “But what this mural project and the recent attention to Juneteenth has done is put a spotlight back on Galveston. Galveston, while not a large city, there should be no other city that has a more meaningful Juneteenth celebration than the birthplace of Juneteenth.”
Location, location, location
To Adams, that location makes all the difference. “There will be countless murals, I think, that will pop up because of the popularity of Juneteenth and how the momentum is building across the country,” he says, “but there’ll never be another mural at (the spot) those five general orders were issued.”
Not only were Granger’s orders issued near where Adams’ mural now stands, but one of the largest slave markets in the South once sat across the street. Inside the building, Collins has assembled a pop-up Juneteenth museum filled with League City-based artist Ted Ellis’ searing paintings and other pointed reminders of the past. One painting of slaves at auction is strategically positioned to overlook the actual location where they were bought and sold, while Collins has removed an ‘Exit’ sign in one hallway to expose the bricks he says still carry slaves’ fingerprints.
Right now the museum is appointment only (through the project’s website or his Facebook page), but Collins hopes it will soon open to the public.
“The mural serves as icing on the cake,” he says. “People need to come inside to get a slice of the real history and to hear the rest of the story.”
Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.