'Freedom Project' Exhibit Commemorates Galveston's Role in Juneteenth

Ted Ellis is one of several featured artists in 'The Juneteenth Freedom Project'

FOR MORE THAN 150 years, Galveston’s historic sites have stood as testaments to the events of June 19, 1865, the day Gen. Gordon Granger and his soldiers marched through the island issuing orders that abolished slavery in Texas. Now, a year after June 19 (also known as Juneteenth) was solidified as a federal holiday, Galveston is commemorating this historic date through art.

A new art exhibit, showcasing various artists from the Houston area, chronicles the African American journey to freedom at Galveston’s NIA Cultural Center. The collection, titled The Juneteenth Freedom Project, includes more than 60 art pieces that document Black experiences in America from the 1500s to present day.

One painting, by the collection’s featured artist Ted Ellis of Houston, depicts the face of General Granger beside General Order No. 3, which was read in Galveston on the very first Juneteenth, freeing one of the last groups of slaves in the United States.

Ellis, the only African American artist appointed by the U.S. Department of the Interior to serve on the federal 400 Years of African American History Commission, anchors the Galveston exhibit with his traveling collection of 40 art pieces.

“With my art I can share a story that can impact others in a constructive manner,” Ellis said. “That’s part of this exhibition. People come in and they pull something back from it, they extract something, and they take it with them.”

The art exhibit is free to the public, thanks to a sponsorship by the nonprofit Juneteenth Legacy Project. The organization’s co-chair, Sam Collins, is a part of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation and had been involved in the push to make Juneteenth a national holiday for more than 15 years. He says art has been instrumental in the organization’s efforts to bring awareness to and preserve lesser-known aspects of American history.

“Art is a universal language,” says Collins, a local historian. “The use of art to tell the Juneteenth story is an expansion of the oral history passed down through several generations. It’s a teaching tool that inspires visitors to dive deeper into history.”

Collins says Galveston’s new art exhibition adds to the momentum and increased interest in African American heritage-focused tourism his organization has seen since the unveiling of its “Absolute Equality” mural last year, also at the NIA Cultural Center. The brightly colored, 5,000-square-foot mural depicts historic symbols and events on the road to African American freedom (from the slave trade to Juneteenth, the Civil Rights Movement and beyond). It stands tall, painted on the center’s historic building at the corner of 22nd and Strand streets, in the same location General Granger read the “Juneteenth” order to free more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state.

Because this event took place more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the mural is meant to display both the beauty and “bitter truth” of this historic moment, said mural artist Reginald C. Adams of Houston. Words from General Order No. 3 are written at the bottom of the mural declaring “absolute equality” between former masters and slaves.

“The mural was a great opportunity to bring to light the history of Juneteenth through color, line, design and form, allowing someone to swallow the bitter taste of truth sugar-coated with creativity and beauty,” said Adams, who completed the massive painting in 27 days. “I am grateful to have played a small part in the thread of how creativity and art tells the story of who we are as a people.”

The NIA Cultural Center is located at 2217 Strand St., in the Old Galveston Square building. It’s open to the public from 10am-3pm Tuesdays through Fridays, and 12pm-6pm on weekends.

photo courtesy Visit Galveston

Art by Ted Ellis

Local historian Sam Collins gives a guided tour through the 'Freedom Exhibition' in Galveston.

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