GALVESTON ISLAND, Texas — On Juneteenth, the promise of “absolute equality” is hanging in the air. The fight for voting rights rages on, a federal anti-lynching law has been stalled in Congress, and lawmakers in several states have banned teachers from talking about racism.
But also, quite literally, artist Reginald C. Adams has painted a 5,000-square-foot mural titled “Absolute Equality,” adjacent to the site where Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3 on June 19, 1865, informing the people of Texas that “all slaves were free.”
On what is now referred to as Juneteenth, Granger and 2,000 soldiers arrived in Galveston, one of the most important economic and political ports in Texas at the time. He read the military order at the Osterman Building, which served as the Union Army headquarters in Texas. The announcement affected 250,000 enslaved people and came more than two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, and two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Public art is an opportunity to be able to convey messages to a very broad and diverse audience, using color and design, which puts a sugar on a very bitter truth — which is the stain of institutional racism in America,” said Adams, who is based in Houston and runs a public art and design firm. “I’m grateful to have that kind of platform and the space to express myself freely and openly, be compensated for it, spread the good work of Juneteenth and show what Black artists are capable of. It’s been an overwhelmingly fulfilling experience.”
This Juneteenth, “Absolute Equality” will be dedicated in a public ceremony. The mural beautifully showcases several vignettes to tell the story of America’s journey to “absolute equality”: It features Moroccan explorer Estebanico, who was the first person of African descent known to enter the American Southwest; a portrait of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman; President Abraham Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation; Granger with five soldiers, including four Black men representing U.S. Colored Troops, who fought on behalf of the Union Army in the Civil War; Hotel Galvez, one of the oldest beachfronts in the South, to signify the resilience of the island; a scene with a parade of people marching for justice.
“That scene symbolizes the now, and this notion that we are walking in solidarity, to the idea of absolute equality,” Adams said. “As artists and designers we also took a bit of creative license with the astronaut. That really serves as a prompt for what we would do in the future, given the issues of racism we are still confronting today.”
“Absolute Equality” was created by Adams and five other artists called the “Creatives”: Samson Bimbo Adenugba, KaDavien Baylor, Dantrel Boone, Joshua Bennett and Cherry Meekins. It took 1,296 hours of labor, 27 working days and 312 gallons of paint to complete.
The mural also includes the full written text of Granger’s military order. (The original version was located just last year in the U.S. National Archives.) Much attention has been paid to the first line of the order, a noteworthy proclamation worth celebrating — that freedom had come to all enslaved Black Americans. Juneteenth has now been declared a federal holiday after overwhelming support from Congress. For the last several years, there’s been a growing campaign to make Juneteenth a national holiday, with efforts led by 94-year-old Opal Lee, who is often referred to as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” and the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.
Since inception, the holiday has been celebrated among Black Texans, and it has become more widely known in recent years. (There was a “Black-ish” episode; Apple added the date to its calendars, and former President Donald Trump infamously claimed he made Juneteenth very popular by deciding to reschedule a rally that had initially been planned for that day in Tulsa, Oklahoma.)
But so much of Juneteenth’s continued relevance and power lies in the order’s second line, which promises “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property.” Written by Maj. F.W. Emery, a man who hated slavery and was an editor of an abolitionist newspaper, those words symbolize the work yet to be done and what America still owes Black Americans.
That’s one point that historian Samuel Collins III wants to make clear. The mural is just one part of an effort by the Juneteenth Legacy Project, said Collins, one of the project’s co-chairs. On my visit to the Juneteenth Legacy Project’s headquarters, Collins walked me just steps away from the mural to reveal a few exposed bricks behind what was once an exit sign. “Symbolically, the fingerprints of our ancestors are all around us,” he tells me. “We have to do the deep work to talk about that history.”
“We are living in this American house, and as current citizens, we are on the deed, and it is our job to do the work to fix the house,” Collins said. “The house has a cracked foundation, but some don’t want to admit that the foundation was cracked. Until we fix the cracked foundation, we are going to have problems generation after generation.”
Collins, a native of Galveston County, has an endless supply of historical facts on the tip of his tongue. He is excited about the mural, but also wants to use the national momentum around Juneteenth to put a spotlight on the Galveston community. Over the past several years, Collins has been a central part of celebrations in the area. In December 2005, he secured the historic property Stringfellow Orchards, which was built for a Confederate soldier in Hitchcock, Texas.
The following year, he held his first Juneteenth celebration there. Artist Ted Ellis, whose work adorns the Juneteenth Legacy Project’s headquarters, says it was one of the most comprehensive Juneteenth programs he had ever seen, with reenactors dressing up as Buffalo Soldiers, as Harriet Tubman, as Sojourner Truth, as Frederick Douglass, to help tell America’s history. The program was honest and engaging, Ellis said, and brought together older generations with younger ones, too.
“It was the former enslaved who chose for themselves to celebrate June 19 as their freedom day. We honor their memory by celebrating June 19,” Collins said. “It’s not about the politicians or the individuals today that have picked up the baton because it is popular. It’s about those that came before: our elders and ancestors.”
With the Juneteenth Legacy Project, Collins isn’t just looking back; he said he wants to create a “Galveston cultural renaissance.” In early June, about a dozen kids filled the headquarters for a daylong art camp, where they were creating paintings for a cultural exchange with Delaware residents. Ellis plans to take the art to Wilmington and share the story of Juneteenth there, and bring local history back to Galveston.
The mural itself is part of what Collins refers to as an “outdoor classroom.” Built within “Absolute Equality” is an augmented reality experience where parts of the mural come to life online and take you to YouTube videos and other web-based content so viewers can learn more about the images depicted. Adams and the Creatives spent three days forming a community engagement strategy to ensure that middle school, high school and college students would be able to engage with public art through the telling of local histories. Local residents also created individual works of art that were collaged into the project.
The Juneteenth Legacy Project partnered with the Nia Cultural Center to ensure that local organizations that have long been doing the work to celebrate Black culture and teach Black history in the community were a part of the initiative, according to Sheridan Mitchell Lorenz, a co-chair of the project. Lorenz’s family owns the retail space and the adjoining parking lot; she donated money to get the project started. Led by Sue Johnson, whom Collins calls a “jewel of the community whose value is not measured in dollars and cents,” the Nia Cultural Center is a Galveston nonprofit organization preparing children to be “torchbearers toward progress” and helping them “academically, culturally, mentally and physically to attain productive futures.”
Lorenz and Collins had been connected years before, but began working together last June after she penned an op-ed for the Galveston County Daily News. In it, she implored white people to “contribute to real emancipation” and talked about how the murder of George Floyd should be a critical turning point to fight against systemic racism in America. Collins told her about his idea for a mural on the wall, and she was “delighted that he brought it to my attention.”
“What I like about this is that it shows a monument that represents the truth and the hope,” Lorenz said. “The name ‘Absolute Equality’ is loaded with hope.”
Once the Juneteenth fanfare is over, Lorenz and Collins hope there’s continued energy to support community organizations that are helping build a better future for coming generations. Collins is hoping that absolute equality bears out in real, tangible ways.
“I hope that my talents and abilities and those of my children will eventually be rewarded at the same level that others are,” Collins said. “We’re not looking for charity; we are looking for equity and appreciation. We have contributed to society, and we should be rewarded for it.”