Nia Cultural Center | March 7, 2022
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awards grant to Galveston’s Nia Cultural Center for expansion of its Juneteenth Legacy Project’s headquarters, art gallery, and programs
Galveston, Texas (March 7, 2022)— The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded a grant to the Nia Cultural Center in Galveston to support the expansion, reach, and capacity of the Nia Cultural Center Juneteenth Legacy Project Headquarters, which includes an art gallery and the adjoining “Absolute Equality” mural, a Galveston landmark dedicated on June 19, 2021 at the birthplace of Juneteenth.
The Juneteenth headquarters, art gallery, and “Absolute Equality” art installation serve as a platform to illuminate and amplify a more complete American story. Through art, educational programs, and community engagement, the Juneteenth initiative helps make the invisible visible and gives voice to the voiceless.
“The Mellon Foundation’s landmark support of the Nia Cultural Center Juneteenth Legacy Project Headquarters comes at an opportune time, and we are so grateful,” said Sue Johnson. Johnson founded Galveston’s Nia Cultural Center in 1992 and serves as its executive director. “Storytelling through public art and events influences all socioeconomic groups, providing a window to understanding what was, what is, and, most importantly, what can be.
“We have a unique opportunity to expand and sustain an initiative that enlightens, educates, and empowers our children and the collective community. We’re thrilled to have a platform that celebrates the contributions of Black freedmen and formerly enslaved people who fought for their freedom and the freedom of others— amplifying a narrative through an honest, fact-based lens of art and high-quality educational programs.”
In 2020, nationwide protests against racism and police brutality gave new urgency to Juneteenth, a holiday long-cherished by Black Americans—an observance of resilience in a centuries-old journey.
“Juneteenth is not about enslavement and suffering,” Sam Collins, a historian and co-chair of the Juneteenth Legacy Project, said. “Juneteenth is about a spirit of renewal that celebrates freedom and opportunity. Absolute equality is not about equal results but about creating a society that supports all to become their very best selves to benefit the collective community.”
Collins continued, “Repairing our American Home for future generations requires expanding the story of our shared history. Our iconic visitor destination and educational landmark—at the genesis of Juneteenth—serves as a special space to reflect and expand our knowledge in a very public place, celebrating freedom, opportunity, and absolute equality for all.”
The Juneteenth Headquarters, mural, and art gallery is located in the heart of Galveston’s Historic Strand District on the site of Union Army General Gordon Granger’s headquarters, where he issued a proclamation on June 19, 1865 that ordered the freedom of more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in Texas.
The issuance came almost 30 months after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had officially outlawed slavery in Texas and other states at war with the Union on January 1, 1863. However, until Juneteenth, Lincoln’s proclamation had little impact on Texas.
Johnson, Collins, and Torrina Harris, program director for Nia Cultural Center and a board member of Vision Galveston, will lead the effort. They see the headquarters, art gallery, and mural as the cornerstone of the initiative’s efforts to educate and engage a broad audience about the historical and cultural significance of Juneteenth while deepening the national understanding of the impacts this legacy has had on Texas’ and the United States’ narrative around African American history, identity, and heritage.
Houston-based Ted Ellis’s traveling “Juneteenth Freedom” exhibition anchors the gallery’s installation. Ellis is an American artist and former environmental scientist.
"The Nia Cultural Center Juneteenth Legacy Project Headquarters will help convey the true meaning of Juneteenth, which symbolizes the struggle to protect human dignity and the enduring cause of equal justice,” said Brent Leggs, executive director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's National Trust African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. “This iconic space will lead to the continued evolution of the greater community and will empower activists and artists, entrepreneurs and civic leaders to tell our nation’s full American story.”
The Juneteenth exposition reimagines an approach to monuments and memorials to better reflect the nation’s diversity and highlight history that was extensively buried or marginalized until 2020. The collective space gives form and narrative to the beautiful, extraordinary, and powerful diversity, representing one of America’s most influential and essential stories.
The Juneteenth Headquarters’ gallery’s paintings reflect the painful but true account of slavery, emancipation, Jim Crow, civil rights, and the work that continues today toward racial justice and social equity.
The massive mural displays six portals depicting an evolutionary account, including Esteban, the first nonnative enslaved person, who arrived shipwrecked on Galveston Island in 1528; Harriet Tubman, the leader of the Underground Railroad that ferried enslaved Black people to freedom north of the Mason-Dixon line; Abraham Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation; and most notably, General Granger issuing five General Orders on Juneteenth, flanked by Black Union soldiers; Texas State Representative Al Edwards with Reedy Chapel AME Church; and, people marching towards Absolute Equality with an image of Ms. Opal Lee.
A virtual reality tour embedded in the mural allows visitors to experience a thorough explanation of each significant figure and event depicted. In addition, the Juneteenth Legacy Project website (JuneteenthLegacyProject.com) is frequently updated with images and mixed media.
The Juneteenth Legacy Project was started up as a Galveston community initiative in November 2020, led by Collins and Sheridan Lorenz, a board member of the Austin-based Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, along with a 15-member Galveston-based committee, and Ms. Opal Lee as honorary national co-chair. The organization raised nearly $600,000 in funds from more than 100 foundations, churches, and community philanthropists.
The Juneteenth Legacy Project formed a strategic alliance with the Nia Cultural Center soon after receiving its certification as a Texas nonprofit corporation in December 2020. Nia’s commitment to preserve and disseminate African American history to school children in the greater Galveston community continues to take many forms.
The initiative focused on developing and rolling out the public art installation on the site of Juneteenth’s birthplace— aimed at recontextualizing Juneteenth as a pivotal moment in the arc of U.S. history while properly telling the story of its historical and contemporary relevance. One of the project’s desired outcomes was that June 19 be designated a national holiday by the U.S. Congress.
The community initiative received significant national attention in 2021, working alongside Ms. Opal and other activists’ successful efforts to influence legislation calling for a Juneteenth federal holiday.
Starting in February and leading up to June 19, 2021, the initiative attracted national and international media interest from news organizations ranging from ABC’s Good Morning America, NPR, and Agence France-Presse to The New York Times, Houston Chronicle, National Geographic, and NBC News Nightly News.
On June 17, 2021, Ms. Opal was signaled out by President Joseph Biden in a White House ceremony, and then invited to stand next to the president as he signed the Juneteenth legislation into law, making Juneteenth a federal holiday.
The legislation’s co-authors, U.S. Senator John Cornyn (Texas) and U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), attended the Juneteenth Legacy Project’s art installation’s public unveiling on June 19, 2021 in Galveston.