Austin American-Statesman

Long journey for Juneteenth monument

- Alberta Phillips

The journey to building a Juneteenth bronze worthy to stand on the Capitol grounds has been long and winding. And while it won’t be finished on June 19 this year, which marks the 150th anniversar­y of the day Texas slaves were freed — the last to be emancipate­d in the nation — its completion is closer than ever.

Austin lawyer Bill Jones, who is spearheadi­ng the effort along with others, says the new monument will likely be unveiled next year. That is worth celebratin­g. It will be hard, however, to revel in Juneteenth festivitie­s planned this weekend, given the tragedy in Charleston, in which nine African-Americans were shot and killed at a prayer meeting in Emanuel African Methodist Church — one of the nation’s oldest and most historic black churches.

With regard to the Juneteenth monument, it was 15 years ago that I first reported on the topic. Then-state Rep. Al Edwards, D-Houston, had planted a tree on the Capitol’s south grounds to mark the site of a planned Juneteenth monument. That was a hopeful moment, signaling that an important event in Texas history would be marked with perhaps the highest honor.

It was Edwards who sponsored the 1979 bill that made Juneteenth a state holiday. And it was Edwards who steered a 1999 measure for the Juneteenth monument through the Legislatur­e. But it was also Edwards who later botched things by commission­ing a design, whose central figure, the “Lawmaker,” had an uncanny resemblanc­e to himself.

Aside from that figure, the design had four others that were cast in bronze; the Preacher, Farmer, Woman and Daughter. But another setback came when the State Preservati­on Board criticized the design for its historical inaccuracy. Those embarrassm­ents were a setback for the project, despite the addition of a new statue of the Lawmaker — no longer resembling Edwards.

My colleague Ken Herman reported this week that the newer Lawmaker and other four bronzes have found a home at Austin’s George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center. Like Ken, I am happy they’ve been adopted and will soon go on display to the public. Give credit to the museum’s curator, Bernadette Phifer, for rescuing them from a Bastrop foundry where they languished for years. That would have been a colossal waste of the $1 million in state funds put into the project.

I do hope that the museum provides historical accuracy about the statues. For instance, the Lawmaker statue is billed as the figure that gets and then spreads the news of freedom to the rest of the African-American community. But there were no black lawmakers in 1865. They came later in the Reconstruc­tion period following the Civil War. And why is the Lawmaker holding in his right hand Edwards’ 1979 bill that made Juneteenth a state holiday?

In truth, the news re- garding emancipati­on came late to Texas, arriving with Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, who landed in Galveston along with Union troops June 19, 1865. Granger read the order freeing Texas slaves. That was 2 1/2 years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipati­on Proclamati­on, which had become official Jan. 1, 1863.

The fallout over the Lawmaker and company might have ended hopes of putting a Juneteenth statue on the Capitol grounds. But too much was at stake. Wrapped up in those hopes was the desire to tell the story of African-Americans in Texas at one of the most visited and important sites in the state and in a landscape dominated by Confederat­e history. It meant regrouping and starting over, and that is where Jones — lobbyist, five-generation Texan and Aggie — entered the story.

The more Jones researched his own family roots — including a great-great-grandfathe­r, Ephraim Jones, brought to Texas as a slave — the more he recognized it was a history shared by so many black Texans, but one that has mostly been overlooked.

Several years ago, working with African-American lawmakers, Jones conceived the Texas African-American History Memorial, commission­ing sculptor and historian Ed Dwight to design the project.

The new name reflects the scope of the memorial that tracks the history of blacks in Texas, starting in 1528 with the arrival of Estevanico de Dorantes, the personal slave of Spanish explorer Andres Dorantes de Carranza, to modern-day astronauts, scientists and political figures, such as Barbara Jordan.

But the two-sided bronze will also feature lesser-known Texas figures, such as Sam McCullough, wounded at the Battle of Goliad, and recognized as the first casualty of the Texas Revolution. Also featured is Hendrick Arnold, a guide and spy during the Texas Revolution who received a commendati­on that allowed him to buy land — land, Jones says, that many years later was owned by the family of House Speaker Joe Straus.

Eyes will be drawn to its centerpiec­e — a man and woman breaking the chains of slavery, with thousands of people descending beneath them in a never-ending flow of people that show hope. A model of the bronze is on display at the Capitol.

Donations to the $2.4 million project can be made online at taahmf. com. With more than half of that raised or pledged from private and public sources, the journey to erect a fitting tribute to African-American Texans on the Capitol grounds may soon have a happy ending. Contact Alberta Phillips at 512-445-3655.

 ?? CONTRIBUTE­D BY ED DWIGHT ?? A model shows the Texas African-American History Memorial that will be erected.
CONTRIBUTE­D BY ED DWIGHT A model shows the Texas African-American History Memorial that will be erected.
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