Today is the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, the day when African-American slaves in Galveston, Texas were finally granted their freedom – two-and-a-half years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and just over two months after the Confederacy surrendered at Appomattox.
The day of celebration started as a Texas tradition but has since become a nationwide tradition, and in the late 1990s two Texas artists built statues to commemorate the holiday.
Those statues have now been installed in Austin’s George Washington Carver Museum, but the statues have had a long journey to what will likely be their permanent home.
There are five statues, to be exact – the lawmaker, the minister, the former slaves, both male and female, and the child, a daughter, says Bernadette Phifer, curator of the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center in East Austin.
She says it took some time and cajoling to get the bronze sculptures to where they stand now: upright, on concrete pedestals, in the museum’s backyard.
After they were cast, the statues spent some time in the early 2000s in Bastrop. From there, they were laid on their side at an East Austin surplus property warehouse owned by the Texas Facilities Commission. Years later, Phifer started talking to Rep. Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin) about bringing them to the museum, but Phifer says the lawmaker wasn’t too keen at first.
But Phifer worked on her, and eventually Dukes and the Texas Legislative Black Caucus helped put the museum in charge of the statues, ensuring a loan between the museum and the Facilities Commission for the next 99 years.
The way they’re displayed now, the five sculptures reenact the news told to Galveston residents in 1865 by Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger. There’s the white lawmaker telling the African-American minister, who tells it to the slaves who then share it with their daughter the news that, as Phifer puts it, “all of persons enslaved were henceforth free and could walk the land.”
The George Washington Carver Museum will hold a celebration of the statues and of Juneteenth on Saturday, June 27th.