For 27 days in March and April, Reginald Adams and his team of five artists transformed a previously indescribable gray wall in downtown Galveston. Using aerial lifts and more than three hundred gallons of paint, the group calling themselves the Creatives have set up camp in an empty parking lot. As he painted, Adams passed the time with reggae music ringing in his ears. Curious tourists and locals strolling by often stopped to watch and talk with the artists, who explained the significance of where the Old Galveston Square building now stands, surrounded by gift shops. Here, on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, a Union general read the declaration that finally let enslaved Texans know they were free. Now, as the June 16 holiday takes on greater national significance, a five-thousand-square-foot mural titled Absolute equality makes this vital and long overlooked moment in Texas history impossible to ignore. Adams says it was about time.
“The history of Juneteenth has always been there since the time General Granger and those soldiers occupied Galveston,” Adams says, noting that a historical marker was put up at the site in 2014. “But it took the piece of art to put a face to this story, an identity that is now creating entirely new conversations, an entirely new curiosity around what happened on that date.
For Adams, 48, the mural is a highlight of his nearly thirty-year career as a public artist focused on black culture and history in Texas. His bold and vibrant mosaics, sculptures and murals can be found across Houston, from Elements of changea series of four glass and ceramic mosaics honoring the founders of Emancipation Park, for I can not breathe, a captivating close-up portrait of George Floyd painted outside the Breakfast Klub restaurant in Floyd’s old neighborhood, the Third Ward. Adams has also made art in schools, community centers, government buildings, health clinics, and dozens of other public places around Houston and the state. He is attracted to public art in part because he is an extrovert who enjoys collaborating with community members and civic leaders. More importantly, he admires how a mural on a restaurant or a sculpture in a park can make art accessible.
“Most kids in our downtown area don’t visit traditional art spaces. They don’t go to the Museum of Fine Arts. They won’t go to the Museum of Contemporary Art,” he says. “I saw public art as a clear, easy and accessible way to bring art [those] who might never otherwise have access.
His path to becoming a professional artist was unconventional. Adams, who was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1972, moved around a lot as a child due to his father’s work as a soil scientist for the United States Department of Agriculture. To deal with being the new kid in class, he used art as a way to bond with his classmates. However, the adults around him were not always supportive: he recalls a painful moment in kindergarten, when his teacher humiliated him after he did not follow instructions for an activity intended teach colors and shapes.
“I remember her grabbing my paper. [She] picks it up, lifts it above his head and draws the attention of the class to my work,” he says. “She then starts tearing my paper in half. Then she takes my pencils and crushes them into a thousand little pieces.
The moment was defining for Adams, causing him to avoid all art classes as a child. But he also says it didn’t discourage him – on the contrary, it reinforced his identity as an artist.
“I knew then, even at the tender age of five, that it was me and that I’m not what you just did,” he says.
He continued to draw on his bedroom walls, mostly characters from his beloved comic books. In 1992, to his father’s anger, Adams dropped out of Texas A&M University after his freshman year. He had won a full scholarship and planned to study accounting, but his heart was not in it; he was ready to pursue art full time. He moved with his mother to Houston and immersed himself in the city’s burgeoning arts community. Adams began networking and meeting with leaders in the field, including Michelle Barnes, co-founder of the Community Artists’ Collective, and Rick Lowe, founder of Project Row Houses, the nationally recognized program that combines affordable housing with art and cutting-edge design.
Barnes helped Adams land some of his first jobs, teaching art classes at the Shape Community Center and the Community Artists’ Collective. He paid the bills by juggling a range of art-related jobs: painting signs and teaching in after-school programs, among many other gigs. Barnes says Adams’ creative flexibility has served him well.
“He’s not trying to make something that worked in one project work in another. But he learned and grew from those previous experiences, and each new project presents a new challenge,” she says. “There is no formula. He’s just up for the challenge.
Adams was 21 when he took on his first major public art project. Former Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee commissioned him and a team of artists (with help from Barnes) to design a memorial park for Congressman Mickey Leland, who died tragically in a plane crash in Ethiopia in 1989.
Each commission led to the next. In 2019, Adams was the lead artist for the $33 million renovation of Emancipation Park, the city’s first public park and a popular gathering spot for June 19 celebrations. He helped design four mosaic monuments honoring the park’s founders. With over 800,000 colored glass tiles representing earth, wind, water and fire, the statues position the four men who created the park – community leaders and former slaves John Henry “Jack” Yates, Richard Allen, Richard Brock and Elias Dibble – as an essential part of Houston history.
About a year ago, Adams began using the title “the Creatives” to refer to the collective of artists he associates with. He often collaborates with artists from various backgrounds; the Galveston mural team included a Nigerian artist, Sam Abimbola Adenugba, as well as three Houstonians.
Last summer, as the pandemic raged and the death of George Floyd flooded media coverage, the Creatives painted a mural in his memory at the Breakfast Klub, a beloved restaurant in the Third Ward, the former neighborhood of Floyd. The work was cathartic.
“It was therapy, because I’m angry, I’m frustrated, I’m confused. Like, how are we going to let this happen? said Adams.
After Floyd’s death, as Black Lives Matter protests unfolded across the country, June 19 celebrations also garnered more attention. Black Texans have always celebrated Juneteenth, of course, but now 49 states and the District of Columbia officially recognize the holiday. Samuel Collins III, a Galveston historian who sits on the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, thought the time was right to create a broader conversation around Juneteenth in the city where the statement was released.
“I believe all of these events have unfortunately been like a constant drop on a rock, and that rock has split open,” Collins said. “Now there is a window of opportunity to be more proactive in the work.”
In 2012, Collins raised funds for a historical marker at the site of the former Osterman Building, where General Gordon Granger read aloud General Order No. 3. The marker was erected in 2014, but Collins was disappointed that few passersby seemed to notice him on the way to restaurants and bars in Galveston’s downtown plaza. A mural would attract more attention, he decided. He quickly obtained permission from the building’s owner, Mitchell Historic Properties.
A young Houston artist named Chayse Sampy drew the first sketch for the mural, and eventually Adams got involved to help. Adams’ design has been submitted to the Galveston Landmark Commission for approval. In March, artists began work on the mural, which shows key figures at the heart of Juneteenth and the racial justice movement: Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, General Gordon Granger and United States Colored Troops. Visitors who download the free Uncover Everything app can scan the mural with their phone to view videos and learn more about the Juneteenth story.
The mural features five round portals (circles are a recurring motif in Adams’ work). The first depicts Esteban, or Estevanico, who is said to be the first enslaved African to come to North America. He was shipwrecked on the coast of Texas with the Spanish Narváez Expedition of 1528, and later led other expeditions for Spain. He is followed in the mural by abolitionist Harriet Tubman, one hand beckoning runaway slaves to follow her on the Underground Railroad, and the other clutching a lantern. In the next section of the mural, Abraham Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, stands stoically, clutching a chain with open handcuffs. We also see General Gordon Granger signing General Order No. 3 (the text of which is included in full at the bottom of the mural) under the solemn gaze of United States colored troops. The mural features an astronaut, symbolizing continued exploration. Finally, there is a group of people moving forward, marching towards the idea of ”absolute equality”.
Adams is finalizing a documentary about Juneteenth and the production of the mural. He and his team are also designing six murals for the Edison Arts Foundation, creating a series of sculptures for a new community park in Houston, and designing artwork and graphics for two floors of a new hospital in San Antonio. But he says he is particularly proud of the June 19 mural.
“Part of the journey our ancestors died for was for us, you and me, to be able to do what we do, so that what they did would not be in vain,” he says. “It should become a trend. It must. Everyone and their mom should know what Juneteenth is about.