A humming chorus of metallic engines echoed across the intersection of 22nd and Strand in March as a cadre of Kelly-green cherry pickers—each holding a painter aloft—bobbed and weaved in the air. There, under the gaze of smartphones and video cameras, a gray wall of the Old Galveston Square building was being transformed into the island’s most consequential mural, Absolute Equality, in preparation for a Juneteenth debut.
“This may not be in a history book, but history is being made as we bring this mural to life,” says its artist Reginald Adams.
Juneteenth, the oldest nationally commemorated celebration of emancipation in the U.S., has deep roots in Galveston and this site in particular—here, in a former office building and warehouse, a document was signed that helped free enslaved Texans once and for all.
Though it’s a long-shared belief that Texans didn’t learn about the Emancipation Proclamation until two and a half years after the rest of the nation, that simply isn’t true. The Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph and more newspapers from the time prove Texas leaders knew of Lincoln’s orders shortly after he signed them in September 1862, they just deliberately defied them since Texas was a Confederate stronghold.
That ended on June 19, 1865, when Gen. Gordon Granger arrived on the shores of Galveston to assert Union control and enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. He set up headquarters in the Osterman Building and established General Order No. 3—today also known as the Juneteenth order—which stated, in no uncertain terms, all enslaved peoples were free.
“What was key about the Juneteenth order was not that it was new news,” explains Civil War historian Edward Cotham Jr., author of Juneteenth: The Story Behind the Celebration. “The Emancipation Proclamation said you were free; the Juneteenth order meant that you were free.”
The Juneteenth order spread quickly, reaching Houston the very next day. A year later, on June 19, 1866, Galveston’s Black community celebrated “Freedom Day” (Houston also celebrated that day), beginning a tradition that would continue for generations on the island and beyond the borders of Texas, known as Juneteenth. Despite the importance of the day—President Joe Biden signed a bill making it a national holiday on June 17—Juneteenth went largely unnoticed by the greater American consciousness for more than 150 years.
In 2014, Galveston historian Samuel Collins III, whose own ancestors were freed as a result of the Juneteenth order, raised funds and installed a historical marker at the former Osterman Building—ravaged by Hurricane Carla and razed in the ’60s—but few people ever stopped to read it. Then, last year, amid the tragic deaths of Breonna Taylor and Houstonian George Floyd and massive protests over civil rights, Collins noticed a change. “All of the sudden, Juneteenth just exploded in popularity. Everybody was saying, ‘I celebrate Juneteenth,’ and, ‘It’s Juneteenth, not the Fourth of July.’ ”
He also noticed the large, blank wall behind his historic marker and felt a lightbulb go on—why not memorialize the site in a more eye-catching way? After securing permission from the building’s owners, Mitchell Historic Properties, Collins formed the Juneteenth Legacy Project and commissioned Adams, already familiar with his work.
In fact, among Adams’s 350 public art installations over a 25-year career in Houston (he’s originally from Wyoming), his vibrant Bayou City visual histories—murals, glass and tile mosaics, and sculpture—are known to amplify Black voices and shine a light on overlooked stories. He worked on Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses in the ’90s and on the 2000 Mickey Leland Memorial Park. In 2006, he rose to fame with mosaic mural Fruits of the Fifth Ward, which pays tribute to one of Houston’s oldest African American neighborhoods and the influential figures it produced—Barbara Jordan and Lightnin’ Hopkins among them. Sacred Paths, situated along the Columbia Tap-Rail Trail since 2018, honors African American activists. Elements of Change, highlighting the history of Emancipation Park, made its debut in 2020. Emancipation Park was founded by former slaves in 1872 as a safe space for future generations to celebrate Juneteenth. All of this work, says Adams, has led to Absolute Equality.
“I think this mural project will be a catalyst, and perhaps even a poster child for the holiday,” says Adams. “I’m really excited and honored to play a part in recognizing American history through the arts.”
Rather than simply depicting the story of Juneteenth as people know it, Adams and his artistic team, the Creatives, mapped out a story that recontextualizes the holiday as a defining moment in the arc of Black American history, placing it within a larger historical context that begins with the transatlantic slave trade and continues with images of modern-day marchers, while weaving in Galveston’s own significant role.
“It is surreal at moments when we recognize we’re actually standing on the same ground where these events took place, just 150 years later,” he says. “It really was kind of an awakening. We are standing on the shoulders of our ancestors.”
The project, like any large-scale effort, has not been without challenges.
“I’ve never done anything on this scale, at this level,” Adams says of the 5,000-square-foot piece. And though he originally wanted the community to help fill it in using a paint-by-number method, Covid put an end to that. Adams has incorporated drawings by students at the Nia Cultural Center, the project’s primary fiscal sponsor, along the right edge of the mural to represent the community.
Adams now plans to release a documentary film about the mural, create an app that will allow guests to scan sections of the painting and access informative video and reading materials, and build a classroom curriculum incorporating its lessons.
One lesson that could be included? Since the history of Juneteenth is being uncovered in real time, Adams had to adapt one detail even as it was being painted on the Strand: It turns out Granger didn’t physically sign General Order No. 3. In June 2020, the National Archives unveiled the document, revealing a Union Major signed on his behalf—but he did sign the closely related General Order No. 1. Adams switched out the numbers to ensure historical accuracy. While that seems like a small change, it’s this willingness to accept new knowledge that gets to the heart of Absolute Equality’s true purpose.
After all, says Collins, “Juneteenth celebrates the evolution of America to a more perfect union. We were not perfect in 1776 or 1865 or even yesterday, but hopefully we move toward a more perfect union by learning.”
Learn more about the specific people and places depicted in the mural here.
Absolute Equality is being dedicated on June 19 in Galveston. The dedication begins at 11:30 a.m.; related events begin at 10 a.m. and run through the evening. More info at juneteenthlegacyproject.com.