Silences on the Strand: Contesting Public Memories of Slavery and Freedom in Galveston’s Civic Historical Landscape (1871-2021)

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Rice University

On June 19, 2021, a mural was unveiled in Galveston, TX titled Absolute Equality. It depicts several scenes representative of enslavement and freedom and it is located at the former site of the Union Army Headquarters and where U.S. Gen. Granger read the orders that abolished America’s last vestige of slavery. The mural was unveiled with effervescent local pride in the wake of federal recognition of Juneteenth as a national holiday just two days before. U.S. politicians gave impassioned speeches to a huge crowd and media outlets about the historical and political relevance of celebrating Juneteenth and Galveston’s role in the story of freedom. Six blocks away, in front of the Galveston County Courthouse, the 22 ft. tall Dignified Resignation monument depicts a Confederate soldier. Unveiled in 1911 by the city’s local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), the statue’s plaque reads: “There has never been an armed force which in purity of motives intensity of courage and heroism has equaled the Army and Navy of the Confederate States of America.” About ten months before Absolute Equality was unveiled, a motion to remove the Dignified Resignation monument was presented by one county commissioner but it quickly died after no other commissioner seconded the motion, and the issue has yet to be publicly debated again. The coexistence of these two sites is emblematic of the polarized narratives regarding Galveston’s history of slavery and freedom that have jockeyed for influence in the city’s civic historical landscape since the end of the Civil War. For people who are just learning about Juneteenth and registering Galveston as a place that is significant in the national story of slavery, it is easy to get the impression that Juneteenth has always been a well celebrated occasion by the city writ large. This is only partially true -- African Americans in Galveston and beyond have celebrated emancipation on June 19 since 1866, however their collective and cultural memories of emancipation and the preceding centuries of enslavement have only very recently become incorporated into Galveston’s civic historical landscape and made more widely known to the public. Rather than seeing this as a simple story of progress or diversification, this observation led me to ask: Why has it taken so long for this significant piece of Galveston’s history to come to light, and why now? Through my primary source research I have found that Local practices of memorialization and historic preservation have been constructed and enforced in ways that granted white collective memories more visibility and perceived authority in Galveston, and thus marginalized or silenced narratives that would trouble those memories such as a more honest history of slavery on the island.

Honor Thesis
public history, collective memory, slavery, Texas, Galveston, monuments, historic preservation, memorialization

Landry, Katelyn. "Silences on the Strand: Contesting Public Memories of Slavery and Freedom in Galveston’s Civic Historical Landscape (1871-2021)." Undergraduate thesis, Rice University, 2022.

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