Juneteenth Project Stalls, and New Monument Emerges

Statues built as a tribute to Juneteenth for the Texas Capitol grounds sit weathering at the Deep In The Heart of Texas Art Foundry property.
Statues built as a tribute to Juneteenth for the Texas Capitol grounds sit weathering at the Deep In The Heart of Texas Art Foundry property.

The Tejano Monument, unveiled in March on the south lawn of the Capitol, stands to honor the state's early Spanish and Mexican settlers. But for some Texans, it is a reminder of the failed Juneteenth monument project, approved two years before the Tejano Monument.

The bill establishing a Juneteenth monument — to commemorate June 19, 1865, when federal troops arrived in Texas to declare slaves free — was pushed through in 1999 by former state Rep. Al Edwards, D-Houston. Though the five-statue monument was already built, it became clouded in controversy, preventing its installment on the Capitol grounds. There were objections to one of the statues, which appeared to resemble Edwards, and the historical accuracy of the other statues came into question.

Last year, after 12 years and more than $1 million of taxpayer money spent, the Legislature voted to end the Juneteenth project and install an African-American Texans memorial monument instead. The Juneteenth project had “engendered such needless controversy,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who co-authored the new bill.

The Juneteenth monument “was becoming a punch line instead of a poignant symbol of the journey of African Americans in Texas,” Ellis said. “The legislation we passed in 2011 offers a fresh start so that we can get back to what that symbol stands for and away from the bickering.”

The first controversy arose in 2005, when some legislators, including Ellis, suggested one of the monument’s statues looked like Edwards and seemed to inappropriately glorify the legislator. In a January 2005 meeting, the Juneteenth commission, which was tasked with completing the monument, sent that statue to Galveston, where federal troops landed to declare emancipation in Texas. The city council approved placement of the statue on a prominent city-owned site, where it stands today.

 

At that same meeting, the Juneteenthcommission requested a replacement statue, but a similar problem ensued. The statue held a document that says “House Bill 1016,” the legislation Edwards authored in 1979 declaring Juneteenth a legal state holiday.

There were also issues with the other statues — a farmer and his daughter, a preacher and a woman. The farmer wears bib overalls, and the woman wears a high-neck-collar dress, neither of which was typical of 1860s attire.

“These were minor, but noticeable inaccuracies,” said Julie Fields, the spokeswoman for the State Preservation Board, which oversees the Capitol.

Because of those inaccuracies, when the State Preservation Board received a final installation proposal in 2009, the agency’s staff recommended the executive director not submit the proposal to the six-member board, which includes the governor, lieutenant governor and the House speaker.

Another problem for the Juneteenth project was that its leading proponent, Edwards, lost his House seat in 2006, won it back in 2008 and lost it again in 2010. (He lost a bid to reclaim his seat in last month's Democratic primary.) Amid delays and waning support, and in Edwards’ absence, the Legislature repealed the project last year. The Juneteenth statues are being stored in a foundry near Austin.

Ellis said the African-American Texans monument will provide “an encompassing representation of the contributions made by African-Americans to the state of Texas.”

“The new monument will pay tribute to black sharecroppers, laborers, cowboys, farmers, educators, legislators, athletes and musicians, providing an encompassing representation of the contributions made by African-Americans to the state of Texas,” he said.

Designed by a different artist and largely privately funded, the monument is expected to be installed at the Capitol by 2014, said Bill Jones, an Austin lawyer who is leading the efforts to raise the necessary $2.5 million.  The date “all depends on the fundraising,” he said.

The monument's design received preliminary approval from the State Preservation Board in December. If given final approval, the monument will sit across the from the Tejano monument on the south lawn of the Capitol where the Juneteenth monument would have stood.

Though the Juneteenth project was never completed, Edwards said what matters is a monument will stand at the Capitol.

“We’ll have a presence on the Capitol, and I’ll always give credit to the Juneteenth commission and others,” he said. “The commission must be commended for starting the movement.”

 

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