Reginald Adams’ latest project, Absolute Equality, brings a grand-scale historical depiction of Juneteenth to the public eye.
By Allison Malafronte
This story about Reginald Adams and Absolute Equality is from the July/August 2021 issue of Artists Magazine.
Although observation of the Juneteenth holiday — also known as Freedom Day — dates back to 1866, the story behind the celebration, traditionally observed on the 19th of June, is still unfamiliar to many Americans. The story begins on January 1, 1863. After more than two years of Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order abolishing slavery in all of the remaining rebellious states. Two and a half years later, the state of Texas was still holding enslaved people in spite of that order. On June 19, 1865, Union army general Gordon Granger arrived with an infantry of 2,000 troops on the island of Galveston, Texas, to enforce the emancipation and set 250,000 enslaved Black people free. It’s a tide-turning tale, accompanied by a few myths and misconceptions. But the full story is brought to light this year through a massive public-art installation in Galveston titled Absolute Equality.
The person chosen to memorialize and recontextualize this crucial moment in American history is renowned public artist and mosaic muralist Reginald Adams. Having produced more than 350 public-art projects — many of which honor underserved communities and unsung historical heroes — this Houston-based artist was the natural choice for the organizers of the Juneteenth Legacy Project (J19LP), a nonprofit group based in Galveston.
The designated space for the 38×126-foot mural is the Old Galveston Square Building (2211 Strand Street). The building overlooks Granger’s former Union headquarters. Upon receiving the assignment, Adams assembled his team of five full-time artists: Samson Adenugba, KaDavien Baylor, Joshua Bennett, Dantrel Boone, and Cherry Meekins. The team set to work in order to complete the installation for its June 19, 2021, public dedication. The project, however, involved a much broader level of participation than this core team.
Adams is known internationally as an artist who integrates community engagement into all of his projects; Absolute Equality is no exception. “From my first mural more than 25 years ago, I fell in love with the concept of the public being a part of the creative process. Instead of it being about ‘look at what I did,’ it’s about ‘look at what we did.’ This, to me, is putting the public in public art. And it brings a much greater sense of gratification when we bring these projects to fruition together,” Adams says.
In a typical year, that volunteer participation may include such tasks as helping to lay tiles for large mosaics or assisting an on-site group with installation. But 2020 was no ordinary year. Adams and his team rose to the challenge by finding four ways to solicit community involvement in a COVID-safe manner. “Through these four concepts — a student art and literature contest, a documentary, an augmented reality website and app, and an Absolute Equality curriculum — there are hundreds if not thousands of people personally connected to and invested in this project,” Adams says. In addition, a limited number of masked, socially distanced student volunteers had an opportunity to learn about the mural-making process as they helped paint murals inside the building.
Absolutely All Hands On Deck
As work continued outdoors on Absolute Equality, student volunteers helped paint murals in a studio space inside the building. Color-labeled shapes marked on the wall guided their work.
To extend project participation even further, Adams and his team implemented the following four innovative approaches to community engagement.
- Art & Literature Contest: Middle-school, high-school, and college students throughout Region 4 of Galveston were invited to submit original works of art in two-dimensional media, original poetry, and/or the spoken word in response to the phrase “absolute equality.” As incentive, up to $10,000 in scholarships were awarded.
- Documentary Film: An on-site and behind-the-scenes film team recorded interviews and captured in-action footage of Adams, his team, historians, and other members of J19LP from the conceptual stages of the project through the final reveal.
- Augmented Reality: Upon completion of the mural, software professionals created hot spots throughout the story-telling installation. Using an app, visitors scanning these hot spots with their phones are directed to websites, videos and other educational links.
- Absolute Equality Curriculum: Designed for both virtual and in-person instruction, this curriculum provides up-to-date lesson plans that highlight ways that the arts can be used to teach history.
Reginald Adams and his team completed several preparatory steps before they began installing the actual mural. First, they met with J19LP historian and co-chair, Sam Collins, and the project’s funder and co-chair, Sheridan Lorenz, to gain informed perspectives on the most historically and culturally important aspects of retelling the Juneteenth story.
Based on what they learned, the artists created a series of compositional sketches; and they arranged the scenes and portraits that would be featured in the mural. Once approved, those renderings served as references for a hybrid digital and hand-drawn design of the final composition. They could project this design onto the side of the Old Galveston Square Building. This gave the team an idea of what the mural would look like once it was painted on the wall. Next, the team made a color-study miniature of the mural — about 3×9 feet. This allowed them to work out details and make decisions related to scale, tonality, and color-mixing.
The mural’s design features several windows into the past. It depicts scenes that are not only pivotal to the historical narrative of Juneteenth events but are also poignant reminders of its contemporary relevance. The larger of the two center images shows Granger, surrounded by Black soldiers, issuing General Order No. 3. Adams felt that this image, inspired by a student drawing that Collins forwarded to the team, symbolized the heart of the story.
“Of the five general orders that Granger issued that day, General Order No. 3 included the right to enact martial law to enforce the release of enslaved people in Texas,” Adams says. “There’s this myth that Granger rode into town and made an announcement to free the enslaved people. But Galveston is an island. He actually arrived by ship soon after the arrival of more than 2,000 Union soldiers — which included several regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops — ready to use martial law, if needed. In other words, Black soldiers were part of the effort to help free enslaved Black people. This is an integral part of this story that we wanted to bring front and center.”
Key to the Mural
Reginald Adams and his team worked out color mixtures, design details, and scale issues in a miniature color study (above). The design presents 11 historical and aspirational vignettes.
- Transatlantic trade routes used by slave ships
- A forced march representing the more than 12 million enslaved Africans brought to the Americas
- Mesoamerican colossal head sculpture (ca 1500–1000 B.C.) created by the Black Olmecs — one of the most ancient civilizations in the Americas
- Estevanico, a Moorish explorer, who, due to a shipwreck in Galveston Bay, became the first enslaved African to arrive in North America
- Harriet Tubman, leader of the Underground Railroad, which ran north to Canada and, for the enslaved in Texas, south to Mexico
- Abraham Lincoln holding a chain with a broken manacle, symbolizing the Emancipation Proclamation
- Members of the United States Colored Troops (USCT), which was formally established after the Emancipation Proclamation
- General Gordon Granger issuing General Order No. 3, with members of USCT in the background.
- Frontier of outer space—what attitudes and social behaviors will we carry there?
- Hotel Galvez, named for 1786 surveyor Bernardo de Galvez, plus seawall and causeway to Galveston
- Continual march toward a society that encourages all to become their best selves to the benefit of a collective community
Included in General Order No. 3 is the phrase “absolute equality,” hence the title of the project. Adams admits that prior to this project he hadn’t thought of absolute equality as a realistic concept. “Those two words were never in the same sentence for me. But through this project I’ve given a lot of consideration to that concept. What does it mean to live in a world that provides absolute equality, regardless of one’s race, class, religion, or sexual orientation? If I lean toward the light of that pursuit, it starts by treating friends, family, neighbors, and strangers in a way that’s much more tolerant and equitable. Absolute equality isn’t a static destination; it’s an ongoing effort. That’s why, in the final main scene in the mural, you see a group marching in pursuit of that ideal. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go.”
A National Holiday
Part of that progressive march is making sure the Juneteenth story continues to be commemorated and celebrated. Helping to bring this about is the persistence of such activists as Mrs. Opal Lee, J19LP’s honorary national co-chair. In 2016, at the age of 89, Lee walked two and a half miles a day from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., to lobby for Juneteenth becoming a national holiday. This mission of hers became a reality on June 17, 2021. The Absolute Equality mural acts as a visual celebration of the holiday’s continued historical and contemporary relevance. It also serves as a reminder of art’s powerful ability to tell and preserve our most important stories.
Allison Malafronte is a fine arts and design writer and editor based in the greater New York area.