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Juneteenth is Here! It’s a Cause for Celebration for All Americans.

On the occasion of the end of American slavery, let’s revel in the freedoms we’ve won and explore artworks that remind us of the progress we still need.

By Eva Berlin, Digital Content Specialist, High Museum of Art

Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, commemorates the freeing of the last remaining legally enslaved people in the United States. Although Lincoln already had issued the Emancipation Proclamation over two years prior, freedom from bondage had not officially been extended to all enslaved people until an announcement was made by Union Army General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, following the end of the war.

On June 19, 1865, General Granger stood on a villa terrace and read the contents of the unceremoniously titled “General Order №3.” The order proclaimed that all those enslaved were to be freed and treated as paid employees. Newly freed people celebrated and rejoiced together, with the first official annual Juneteenth celebration taking place the following year.

Even though it took years for many formerly enslaved people to actually escape the control of their white oppressors and truly have the freedom to live and work on their own terms, Juneteenth was the beginning. This was a momentous occasion that changed lives and the course of history.

Celebration band, June 19, 1900. Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas in 1980. (Photo by Grace Murray Stephenson via The Portal to Texas History)

Juneteenth is a joyous occasion with a strong legacy of day-, week-, and even month-long celebrations commemorating a landmark moment in African American history. People enjoy concerts, prayer services, picnics, parades, and more.

It is also a time for us to reflect on the truths of American chattel slavery and recognize the ways in which freedoms are still incomplete for people of color in the United States. Four million people were enslaved in our country, and we can’t ignore the lasting consequences.

Two women ride in a flower-adorned carriage for Houston’s Juneteenth parade in 1900; Actors perform at the Atlanta History Center’s 2019 Juneteenth celebration
Band members play at the Juneteenth Atlanta Parade and Music Festival.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” The delayed nature of Juneteenth (two years after the Emancipation Proclamation) is, sadly, indicative of the way justice reaches (or doesn’t reach) marginalized peoples.

How do the shockwaves of slavery affect life in the United States today? How do inequities persist? How do past prejudices reverberate and gain strength under new guises?

For those of us who are shielded by privilege, it’s especially important to consciously confront questions like the ones asked above and consider the role our history plays in society today. History — if we choose to reflect on it — offers us the glorious opportunity to avoid repeating previous mistakes.

Many artists in the High Museum of Art’s collection grapple with our country’s dark history of slavery, racism, and prejudice, as well as with their own personal journeys of understanding and healing. This Juneteenth, in the spirit of reflection and progress, come to the High Museum and engage with these artworks. Let them serve as starting points for meaningful conversations of reflection with yourself or your loved ones.

Works to Explore in the High’s Collection

Kara Walker
The Jubilant Martyrs of Obsolescence and Ruin, 2015
Cut paper on wall
Not currently on view

Kara Walker addresses the racial prejudice and inequality embedded in contemporary society. Her cut-paper installations reference the old-fashioned art of silhouette portraiture popular in the 1800s. In her works, this customarily genteel style of depiction is at odds with the grotesque, graphic, and complicated subject matter of our country’s racially charged past and present. The horrors of slavery and the brutality of the American Civil War are on display in this tangled tableau of clashing bodies. By creating stark images in black on white, Walker avoids any softening of the harsh realities she depicts. Her silhouetted figures, lacking individualistic details, satirize the many ways black people have been painfully stereotyped, caricatured, and fetishized in American history and media.

Although this work is not currently on view, you can explore the meaning behind the images in the High Museum’s online interactive here. Please be advised that the artwork contains graphic content, including violent and sexual imagery.

Conversation Prompts:
What actions do you see taking place in this artwork? What’s clear to you? What do you have questions about? Take a moment to reflect on your own identity. How do you relate to this image? Are you struggling or unable to relate to the images you see? Why?

Lucy T. Pettway
Birds in the Air, 1981
Cotton and cotton/polyester blend
On view in Gallery 404, Skyway Level, Stent Family Wing

This quilt by Lucy T. Pettway is a vibrant puzzle of interlocking geometries and unexpected deviations. Pettway was a member of the Gee’s Bend quilting collective, located in a remote community in Alabama composed primarily of the descendants of enslaved people on the former Pettway plantation. The community is bordered on three sides by the Alabama River, which may be why the collective developed distinctive quilts that stray from traditional Euro-American quilting patterns. Long unknown, the work coming from the Gee’s Bend quilters gained national attention only recently. Even then, critics appreciated the quilts in terms of their visual connection to modernist paintings created by male European artists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Pettway’s quilts are beautiful in themselves and notable for their own traits — not for any misinterpreted relationship to the works of others.

Conversation Prompts:
Does your family or group of friends share traditions? What are they? Where do they come from? How might this artwork relate to Juneteenth?

Radcliffe Bailey
En Route, 2005
Mixed media with photograph on Plexiglas, coconut palms, felt, acrylic, and wood
On view in Gallery 404, Skyway Level, Stent Family Wing

In Radcliffe Bailey’s work, layers of images, symbols, and textures coalesce to produce that hazy-yet-evocative sense unique to memories. Here, old photographs, African masks, an Ogoni statue, palm fronds, and the Pan-African colors set a scene ripe with allusions to the forced migrations of the transatlantic slave trade. En Route explores ideas of waterways, vessels, and departures from home in a way that feels both personal and universal. Bailey engaged with the Kongo minkisi tradition, in which ritually charged objects are used for healing and communication with ancestors. The central photograph, showing a man seated in a boat, is actually from one of his own family albums. By using such intimate images, Bailey reflects on the lives of his ancestors while linking their stories to broader historical narratives.

Conversation Prompts:
How would it feel to be inside this artwork? What makes you say that? How do your loved ones share memories? What’s your earliest memory of a caregiver, grandparent, or an older friend?

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