Absolute Equality: A New Mural Reimagines Public Spaces and the Story of Juneteenth
On June 19, 1865—a full two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation—Union General Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3 in Galveston, Texas, proclaiming:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. 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 freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” [Editor's Note: In order to ensure that we are telling the full American story, we acknowledge that enslaved Black Americans were, in most cases, enslaved by white people in the United States.]
In the years that followed, Black communities, first in Texas and then across the United States, gathered to mark the day that became commonly known as Juneteenth. As knowledge of Juneteenth has evolved and grown, it has become the focus of the Juneteenth Legacy Project (JLP) to further elevate the history of June 19th as a central moment in United States history, while also supporting activist and educator Opal Lee’s campaign to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. On June 17, 2021 that dream became reality.
In 2021, the JLP is marking this day with the unveiling of a 5,000-square-foot public art mural that overlooks the site where Granger issued General Order No. 3. The intent behind this installation—called Absolute Equality—is to reconsider the role of monuments and memorials in telling pivotal moments in American history, while emphasizing, as JLP co-chair and National Trust Advisor Sam Collins says in the Galveston Daily News, that “Absolute equality is not about equal results but about creating a society that supports all to become their very best selves to benefit a collective community.”
In order to learn more about the Juneteenth Legacy Project and the role of the Absolute Equality mural as a tool to tell the full American story, we spoke to Collins, the artist Reginald Adams, and Danny Asberry El, president of Solel International, who is developing an augmented reality experience to share in the extended storytelling space.
Tell us about the Juneteenth Legacy Project and why it is so important to you.
Sam Collins: As we continue the work of reimagining monuments and memorials in public spaces, the Juneteenth Legacy Project (JLP) is a case study for other communities. We are expanding the narrative to tell the full story of our history in Galveston, Texas, and the United States.
The JLP, in partnership with the property owner, local nonprofits, and the community, came together to make this public art project a reality. America is our home, but it is built on a cracked foundation. As we begin to tell the full story we are doing the repair work to fix the foundation, but if we don’t repair the foundation in this generation, future generations will continue to deal with the problems of deferred maintenance.
No one living today is responsible for the cracks in the foundation or the errors of the past, but as current stewards of our American home it is our responsibility to do the work to fix the problem in hopes of creating a better future for the next generation.
What can you tell me about the impetus for the mural project and its location in Galveston?
Collins: When visiting the historic Strand District [in Galveston], I would see people walking by the Texas Historical Commission Juneteenth historical marker and not reading it. I also saw the blank wall behind the Juneteenth historical marker and thought that would be a great location for a mural. The blank wall created an opportunity to expand the story centered around events that happened on June 19, 1865, in Galveston on the southwest corner of 22nd and Strand.
What do you hope visitors will be able to take away from this project?
Collins: I hope they learn something new about history in Galveston, Texas, and the United States. I also hope it sparks a desire inside of visitors to want to learn more and to seek out information through self-study. We are lifelong learners, and hopefully visitors will walk away from this public art project feeling more knowledgeable about Juneteenth.
You refer to the location of the mural as an art installation and a storytelling space. Tell me more about that distinction. How do you expect the space to be used?
Collins: There are different mediums of art and this space allows us to tell a story of our history with paint and technology. I hope the intersection will not only become an outdoor classroom, but a place where people can heal. I hope it inspires other communities to do the work necessary to tell the full story and teach the full history. Not only will it be a space to learn, but also to celebrate freedom. I hope to see photos of individuals, couples, families, schools, and organizations in front of the mural.
What inspired you as you painted this mural?
Reginald Adams: The imagery of the mural was inspired by a series of conversations between Sam Collins, feedback from the members of the Juneteenth Legacy Project, and my own research. Collectively, this input helped shape and forge the design and composition of the mural into what it became as a final work of art.
Why are projects like this an important way to tell American history?
Adams: Projects like this are important to tell American history in a more accurate way. These types of projects also open up new doorways for social dialogue regarding social justice and racial equity. The magnitude, scale, and beauty of the mural make it a lot easier for people with differing opinions or attitudes around racial issues to have a more open and transparent conversation. The mural helps place a sweetness around the harsh and bitter taste of racism and social inequities.
What do you hope visitors will take away from this installation?
Adams: I hope this mural inspires people to take a deeper look into the systemic impact that slavery and racial inequality has had and currently has on America and the world. I also hope the mural inspires others to use art to stimulate broader and deeper conversations about social issues affecting our communities locally and beyond.
What can augmented reality add to an installation like Absolute Equality?
Danny Asberry El: For starters, adding augmented reality creates a whole new dimension of interactivity to fixed works. Remember the old phrase "If walls could talk?" Now they can by downloading the Uncover Everything app (Google | Apple) and scanning your favorite monument, picture, and wall with it. With A/R, including more audiences such as persons with disabilities is in reach because now when an item has been scanned the hearing-impaired can see video and captions and those that are visually impaired can listen in and get the true meaning of an artistic or sculptural piece. Our app makes information as inclusive as it can be.
What additional information will visitors be able to find when they use the augmented reality app in the storytelling space?
Asberry El: They will see videos about intertwined pasts of Mustafa Zemmouri [—also known as Stephen the Moor, Esteban de Dorantes, Estebanico, or Esteban the Moor—who was enslaved and brought to Galveston by Spanish explorers], the Indigenous relationships concerning Olmecs and ancient Africans, the slave trade, the incredible journey of Harriet Tubman and how the Underground Railroad went south through Mexico, the Emancipation Proclamation, the role of Abraham Lincoln, General Granger's role in General Order No 3 declaring the freedom of slaves, and much more.
What inspires you about this project? What do you hope visitors will take away?
Asberry El: I am a native Texan, and I am proud to see more representation of prominent figures throughout history that reflects the true diversity that has impacted us all here! I want the visitors to know that all men and women have value and can contribute to the whole.
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