Juneteenth: When murals on city walls tell stories of Black liberation

Photo of Juneteenth history
University of Nottingham/Courtesy

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On the walls of a freeway underpass, in a tucked-away alley, outside a beloved thrift store, public art is everywhere. Some murals are created for their beauty and to inspire awe, others for Instagram selfies. But, sometimes murals show us important stories, stories that tell of past milestones and memories as well as present tragedies and turning points.

The story of Juneteenth, the day enslaved African Americans were emancipated, was not always known or celebrated despite its significance — in fact, it was only recently recognized as a federal holiday. Although some Black and African Americans have celebrated the holiday for years, Juneteenth gained notable attention from organizations, public officials and everyday Americans last summer as the Black Lives Matter movement picked up steam after the murder of George Floyd. This year, as we celebrate Juneteenth — a holiday meant to bring Americans together to celebrate the day all Americans became free — we can reflect on the ways Americans have told stories of Black liberation for all the world to see — through public art. 

Public art can unveil remarkable parts of history that we may not expect or even know of. One series — the “Amistad Murals” — painted by Hale Woodruff in 1938, shows the progression from slavery to freedom, starting with the mutiny aboard a Spanish slaveholding ship on its way to Cuba. In 1839, when 53 Africans from Sierra Leone were illegally seized by Portuguese slave hunters and put on a ship to later be sold into slavery, the African captives retaliated and attacked crew members to regain their freedom. The first of six murals depicts this dramatic, blazing fight aboard La Amistad, which Woodruff paints as if he saw the scene himself and managed to capture in slow motion. 

The second mural depicts an even more unexpected part of the Amistad rebellion, when the African captives were on trial in the U.S. Supreme Court, with former President then congressmen, John Quincy Adams, representing them. While the imagery of the mural evokes feelings of tension and agitation, the Supreme Court actually ruled in favor of the African captives, declaring that they were illegally kidnapped and thus free. The third mural elicits catharsis as it shows the surviving captives returning to the shores of Sierra Leone, free and home at last. The murals read like poetry, inducing an amalgamation of emotions as we journey through this story of Black struggle and liberation. 

One of the most significant times for Black Americans and American art writ large was when a New York City neighborhood became a mecca for Black creativity in the 1920s. The Harlem Renaissance gave us renowned poets such as Langston Hughes, who made us question what happens to a dream deferred, and jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, whose rhythm and influence can’t be beat. One talented Black artist and illustrator who sprung up during this cultural epoch was Aaron Douglas, whose work depicted Black life from slavery to segregation and every disheartening and joyous moment in between. 

One of Douglas’ most notable works was a series of murals called “Aspects of Negro Life,” completed in 1934. The artistic style of the mural series was inspired by traditional African artwork, which was uncommon for Americans to use at the time. The murals show various points of African American history starting with Africans living in their homeland, to the Emancipation Proclamation and the withdrawal of Union soldiers from the South. They depict hardship and disappointment, while also beautifully capturing days of jubilee and relief. 

Some three decades after the “Amistad Murals” and “Aspects of Negro Life,” the bustling city of Chicago made its own statement through public art by creating what they called the “Wall of Respect,” a mural made by fourteen artists depicting Black heroes and icons from Nat Turner to Aretha Franklin. The “Wall of Respect” became a public gathering place where people played music, read poetry and held political rallies. The effects of the “Wall of Respect” demonstrate how public art brings communities together to mourn and celebrate, to reflect and hope for the future. 

Murals don’t just bring local communities together, they connect people from across the globe and represent our shared humanity and empathy. Soon after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, murals of him appeared in cities all over the world from Naples, Italy, to Manchester, England and Manhattan, New York. These murals served as a symbol of solidarity, grief and encouragement to take direct action to end police brutality. 

As a society, we don’t appreciate murals enough. While public art isn’t always permanent — it can be painted over for something new, vandalized or simply fade over time — we should cherish the public art around us while it’s here. Public art is a visual language, a language that communicates stories of Black liberation, a language that we can all understand and a language that honors the past and present. 

Daniella Lake covers culture and diversity. Contact her at [email protected].