‘Teacher. Juneteenth’ is dedicated to teaching history

Samuel Collins III elevates the work of black artists in Galveston, Texas, in a gallery across from which slaves were sold

Samuel Collins III is known around Galveston, Texas as Professor Juneteenth.

June 19, which commemorates June 19, 1865, the day orders were issued to free more than 250,000 enslaved black people in Texas, has long been celebrated in the state and the South. But Collins used the day to tell the story of not just Juneteenth, but of Galveston and the country in new ways.

Samuel Collins III in front of the mural in Galveston, Texas | Credit: Monique Moore

He led a giant outdoor mural commemorating the history of Galveston’s slaves, their freedom and their possible future in a mural that was dedicated on June 16, 2021.

This year, he plans to hold an auction of works by black artists at an art gallery across the street where slaves were once sold.

“As we reimagine monuments and memorials in public spaces, we are able to teach and educate in a non-threatening way and have people receptive to information,” Collins said. “Juneteenth is not just about slavery, but also about the freedom and opportunity resulting from the event.”

“Juneteenth is not just about slavery, but also about the freedom and opportunity resulting from the event.”

Collins, 51, is a husband, father of four and associate minister at his church. His paid work is as a financial consultant, but it is as an advocate and historian that he is known.

A lawyer and a historian

Its mission is “to bring dignity and respect to the history and people of our community,” said Sue Johnson, executive director of the Nia Cultural Center in Galveston, which has partnered with Collins on a number of projects, including the mural and the auction. “It’s a small community and it’s an oppressed community and people don’t want to talk. He’s someone who will talk. He expects fairness and justice and if he thinks it’s not not fair, he’s going to say something in a diplomatic way.”

It is in Galveston that General Gordon Granger issued the orders that resulted in that freedom in June 1865, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The Southern states refused to obey the Proclamation during the war.

It’s Collins’ mission to make sure the coastal town’s ugly legacy – once home to the largest slave market west of New Orleans – isn’t buried under barbecues, drive-thru bars and stores selling Confederate flag bikinis.

Collins’ first venture to celebrate Juneteenth in an outrageous way came soon after he bought the dilapidated Stringfellow estate in the town of Hitchcock, about 14 miles from Galveston and where Collins lived much of his life.

The nearly 9.5 acre plantation was built in 1883 by Henry Martyn Stringfellow, a former Confederate lieutenant who paid laborers $1 a day to work in his orchards. But that was double the average salary of 50 cents. After fixing it—although it still needed a lot of work—Collins and his family opened the plantation for its first June 19 celebration in 2006, sponsored by Merrill Lynch, then Collins’ employer. About 600 people attended.

“We have had United States Colored Troops reenactors, we had Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas reenactors, storytelling and other events,” Collins said. “It started this process of using art and culture and history to teach. “

Further June 19 celebrations were held at the plantation, until corporate sponsorship dried up. Collins knows it’s long, but he said he’d like to make it the Stringfellow Learning Center, with courses in architecture, economics, art and history.

Realizing dreams with public art

But Collins fulfilled other dreams. Last year Galveston dedicated a 5,000 square foot mural titled “Absolute Equality” to the spot where the order that led to the freedom of slaves was issued. The mural was Collins’ idea; he contacted a local philanthropist, she donated the seed money, and more was raised from individual donors and foundations.

The mural begins with the image of an enslaved Moorish navigator who was shipwrecked off Galveston in 1528, the first recorded non-native slave to arrive in the territory. It moves through history to Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, United States Colored Troops, the signing of the order and ends with people marching towards the goal of absolute equality. It also includes a section of artwork made by young locals and a number of places with QR codes to scan for more information.

“It’s a space for public art and storytelling,” he said. “It’s the art that speaks to you.”

Art that challenges could be the theme of Collins’ project this Juneteenth: He hosted an auction of artwork by eight black artists in the Juneteenth Legacy Project headquarters, which includes an art gallery. And it’s located on Strand Street across from where the slaves were auctioned off.

“My goal is to help these artists benefit from their own work where the work was exploited on the Strand,” Collins said. “At the time, traders made all the money. I want to try to help artists make money now by selling their own art.”

“At the time, traders made all the money. I want to try to help artists make money now by selling their own art.”

For Johnson, “it’s new, it’s bold and it’s a bit scary.” Although there has been a positive response to the gallery, which opened last year, she said she doesn’t always feel safe in these times to “tell the kind of stories this gallery.

Chayse Sampy, 24, who is earning her MFA at Florida State University, contributed an oil painting she created of the June 19 order signing. She has deep roots in Galveston and Collins is a distant relative. She sold him his first work of art right out of high school. It made him think about taking art seriously. Then the killing of Trayvon Martin and other unarmed black men, “made me realize that I can use my art not just to do something pretty, but to say something”.

Sampy said Collins was “my biggest defender, my biggest promoter”. And from the auction, she said, “it’s empowering for us to be where our ancestors were and reap the benefits of our labor.”

Collins has devoted his time, energy and finances to these and many other projects and certainly feels tired at times. “Whenever you’re passionate about something, you get bored,” he said. But he continues, even when the direction he pushes sometimes seems the opposite of his state and country.

It’s because he truly believes that history cannot be hidden or dismissed, but must be confronted to change the future. He quoted the poem that Maya Angelou wrote for the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993:

“History, despite its heartbreaking pain
Can’t be unlived but so faced
With courage, there is no need to live again.”

Alina Tugend
Alina Tugend is a New York-based journalist who writes regularly for national publications, including The New York Times. She is the author of the book “Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong”. Read more