After two decades of efforts by state lawmakers to construct a memorial at the Capitol honoring African-Americans, the final product — a two-story-tall, 32-foot-wide, bronze and granite monument — was unveiled at a ceremony Saturday morning.
State and local officials and several hundred others gathered on the south lawn of the Capitol to celebrate the milestone but also to honor the sacrifices of previous generations, from slavery to civil war to segregation.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a former member of the Texas House who helped raise money for the memorial, said that “it has not been an easy journey” for African-Americans who paved the way. While some can get wrapped up in current challenges, Turner said, the monument pays tribute to their history.
“It’s important to note that this journey didn’t begin yesterday. It didn’t begin 10 years ago. It began a long time ago in this state,” he said. “And look at where we are today. I think that speaks volumes.”
The central scene on the monument, created by Denver-based sculptor Ed Dwight, commemorates June 19, 1865, or Juneteenth, the day of the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas, the last state to be emancipated in the U.S.
The front of the monument has a 10-foot-high image of a male and female ex-slave, with the man holding the Emancipation Proclamation and a large crowd of ex-slaves below.
The monument also includes imagery that honors African-Americans’ contributions to the cattle and oil industries, Texas music and Buffalo Soldiers.
Bill Jones, chairman of the Texas African-American History Memorial Foundation, said that when Dwight was commissioned for the work, he was given three instructions: to create a memorial that was historically accurate, was aesthetically pleasing and had emotional impact.
“I am here to tell you that he has done all three. And he has done so beautifully,” Jones said. “What he has created will walk you through Texas history that will include the contributions of Africans and African-Americans to this state’s rich past.”
Later in the ceremony, the crowd gave Dwight a standing ovation. The monument cost about $3 million, much of which was raised by the memorial foundation. Lawmakers had also approved $1.5 million to complete the project.
Gov. Greg Abbott noted that African-Americans shaped the history of the state long before it was named Texas.
“To know where we are going in life, we have to understand where it is that we have come from: the triumphs, the tragedies, the lessons that we learn along the way,” he said. “They are a legacy for the generations that are to come forward in the future. But chapters have been missing from the story of Texas. That changes today.”
State Rep. Helen Giddings, D-DeSoto, chairwoman of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, thanked dozens of individuals involved with the effort to bring the monument to reality, including former President George W. Bush, who as governor directed the State Preservation Board to plan for such a monument and allocated funds for it.
After the green fabric covering the towering monument was pulled away, many crowded around to take photos and read the plaques, and a barbecue reception was held.
Just a few hundred feet away, several groups of protesters who began to gather halfway through the memorial ceremony amassed to more than 300. About 15 White Lives Matter protesters were surrounded by hundreds of counterprotesters.
The barbecue sailed on with little attention to the sideshow. Among those celebrating the day was Glenda Thorn, 60, who said she came “to be a part of history.”
“I just wouldn’t miss this for nothing in the world,” Thorn said at the reception. “This country was built by our ancestors, not solely, but we had a big contribution, and we were never given credit. … It’s just emotional. … We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go.”