Texas Prepares to Celebrate Massive Black History Monument Amid Controversy

While the event is positioned for a grand celebration with free barbecue for a thousand, like any joyous gathering it’s not without some drama. It's unclear whether the sculptor has been paid-in-full, and protest rumors are swirling.

On Saturday, Nov. 19, Texas will unveil the first and only African American history memorial on the Texas Capitol grounds. Following the unveiling ceremony that begins on the South lawn at 10 a.m., a barbecue lunch catered by Pok-E-Jo’s Smokehouse will be available for up to 1000 members of the public, free of charge, according to State Rep. Helen Giddings, Chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, which announced the unveiling on Oct. 10.

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Photo by Erica McCarthy

A Texas-sized memorial
By all accounts, the 32-foot-long and 27-foot-high monument – crafted by master sculptor Ed Dwight of Denver, CO – is both massive and magnificent. From a north-facing distance, its high-point parallels the Capitol’s peak, and it sits across from a statue that honors Confederate states and the dates that they seceded from the Union during the Civil War.

“What I did is, I told the whole story of Texas from the beginning with all the visual details of it. I matched the stories with the visuals. And the story is all laid out for you,” says Dwight, who has created statues and memorials around the U.S. and in Canada. “We’ve got an African American explorer exploring Texas in the 1500s, and we’ve got a Black astronaut from Texas exploring space. And all my stories have happy endings.”

The memorial includes numerous other notable figures, including George Thomas “Mickey” Leland – the anti-poverty activist Democrat, who later became a Texas congressman and chaired the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as Barbara Jordan, Texas’ renowned lawyer and educator who championed the U.S. Civil Rights movement.

Sculptor Ed Dwight spent the past five years crafting the Texas African American History memorial.
Sculptor Ed Dwight spent the past five years crafting the Texas African American History memorial. Photo by Erica McCarthy.

Dwight has devoted the past five years of his life to crafting Texas’ monument, and it is the 83-year-old sculptor’s 128th work. His works include one on the capitol grounds in Columbia, SC, which is 50-feet-long and 30-feet-tall. He also crafted the Tulsa Riot memorial in Oklahoma, as well as monuments in Patterson, NJ and Detroit. He also created a work for six blocks in Chicago’s jazz district.

The Texas memorial is unique in that it’s two-sided, with imagery on both the front and back.

What I did is, I told the whole story of Texas from the beginning with all the visual details of it. I matched the stories with the visuals

“We’re very pleased and very satisfied with his work and we think everyone is going to be excited when they see it. It’s huge,” said Giddings. “We have great admiration for the work the artist has done.”

In addition to a sculpting degree from the University of Denver and having headed the university’s sculpting department for four years, Dwight holds an engineering degree from Arizona State University and a master’s degree-equivalent in aerospace engineering from California Institute of Technology. Dwight is an Air Force Veteran with 14 years of service, much of which time he served in Texas. He was America’s first African American Astronaut Candidate; and appointed by President John F. Kennedy, he completed United States Air Force Astronaut Training. For four years, Dwight was an Air Force Aerospace Test Pilot who performed several test projects for NASA.

After 12 years and more than $1 million of taxpayer money spent, the Legislature voted to end the Juneteenth project

Behind the scenes
While the event is positioned for a grand celebration, like any joyous gathering it’s not without some drama.

The memorial was birthed in drama years ago when a Texas “bill establishing a Juneteenth monument — to commemorate June 19, 1865, when federal troops arrived in Texas to declare slaves free — was pushed through in 1999 by former state Rep. Al Edwards, D-Houston. Though the five-statue monument was already built, it became clouded in controversy, preventing its installment on the Capitol grounds. There were objections to one of the statues, which appeared to resemble Edwards, and the historical accuracy of the other statues came into question,” according to the Texas Tribune.

In 2012, the Tribune quoted state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who co-authored a bill for the current memorial: “After 12 years and more than $1 million of taxpayer money spent, the Legislature voted to end the Juneteenth project and install an African-American Texans memorial monument instead. The Juneteenth project had ‘engendered such needless controversy.’”

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Photo by Erica McCarthy

On Nov. 12, Dwight confirmed reports that he has not been paid-in-full for his work on the Texas African American History Memorial that’s scheduled for unveiling on Nov. 19, though he believes payment was due within 10 days after installation was complete.

“There are terms in the contract for how he’s paid, and those terms are being met,” said Giddings, who referred any inquiries about payment or lack of it to Austin attorney Bill Jones – who chairs the Texas African American History Memorial Foundation that manages the $2.7 million raised to commission the memorial and for ancillary services; as well as to Allyn Media, the Dallas-based public relations firm promoting the unveiling.

soulciti didn’t receive a reply to a voicemail left with Jones. Shawn Williams of Allyn Media replied that he spoke with Jones and that Giddings is on the foundation board and that her comments speak for the foundation.

Additionally, where one might expect those with special interest in African American culture to travel far and wide for the memorial’s unveiling, the foundation allocated no money for advertising to share the news with Texans at large – including in major cities, like Dallas and Houston, or with specific interest groups around the nation.

“We did not put that in our budget and I’m awfully sorry for that, advertising for anybody,” said Giddings. “I’ve been on many radio shows in Dallas. What we’ve done, we have 18 members of the Texas Legislative Black caucus, and we’ve given them press releases to give to the press in their cities. We’ve been in any number of papers.”

Rally rumors
Two anonymous sources confirmed that an anti-White Lives Matter rally, sponsored by Smash Fascism Austin and possibly in response to rumors of a White Lives Matter rally, may be planned for Saturday between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. at or around the Capitol.


Click here to view some behind-the-scene photos of the memorial during the creation process.

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