Jun 21, 2023

Unveiling History and Hope: Philadelphia Welcomes Its First Juneteenth Mural

by: Chad Eric Smith

Philadelphia is now home to an extraordinary piece of art honoring Juneteenth. This past weekend, an enthusiastic crowd of over 300 assembled near Germantown ArtHaus in the Germantown neighborhood, eager to witness the dedication of artist Keisha Whatley’s most recent masterpiece, which is considered Philadelphia’s inaugural Juneteenth Mural.

Spanning a substantial 1,100 square feet, this elaborate painting was two and a half months in the making. It serves as a tribute to the pivotal day of June 19, 1865, when individuals in Galveston, Texas were finally able to embrace their freedom – more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Keisha Whatley was resolute in her decision to depict more than just the slavery era in her commemorative mural.

“Our story starts so far before,” she told The Inquirer. “I refused to glorify broken Black bodies…and trigger my community.”

Instead, Whatley crafted an intricate three-tiered mural that celebrates the extensive history of Black individuals, from their ancestral beginnings to the triumphant moment of emancipation.

The mural’s lower portion is teeming with vibrant depictions of African heritage – from the figures of people astride camels, lush African landscapes, and traditional patterns, to representations of the Dogon tribe’s knowledge of the stars and women engaging in communal hairdressing. These images encapsulate the essence of daily life before the forced separation of families during slavery.

Mural artist Keisha Whatley presents her Juneteenth mural, Philadelphia's first, while telling the story and art of creating the mural. Tyger Williams / Staff Photographer

The middle section of the mural exhibits a contrasting monochromatic scheme, with overlapping images that evoke the transatlantic slave trade era. It includes faceless figures of enslavers and political icons, purposefully blending into the background to emphasize that the narrative is not centered on them.

Emanating from a radiant golden hue at the top, six Black individuals are portrayed looking ahead with hope, holding hands firmly, flanked by soldiers of the Civil War Colored Troops. Amidst them, faint imageries of individuals laboring in cotton fields serve as a backdrop. The words “freedom,” “family,” “power,” and “liberty” encircle them with broken chains, while a clenched fist symbolizing Black power is seen breaking a chain. 

Keisha Whatley hopes her mural will empower the community to face hardships by remembering their inherent resilience. But for the locals like Kevin Powell, the mural did even more – it filled him with pride.

Powell, who grew up in Germantown during the 1970s, said, “A lot of celebrations didn’t include us, and Juneteenth brought a sense of sadness for how long people in Texas spent without knowing they were free. Coming out [of the house] to see this! I was in shock, it made me feel extremely proud, and I couldn’t wait to take pictures.”

This Juneteenth mural is the result of a collaborative effort among the Absolute Equality Public Art Initiative, Mural Arts Philadelphia, Capital One Cafe, and the nonprofit Voices Underground. The mural is displayed on the exterior wall of Germantown ArtHaus, Whatley’s community art center, which is seeking donations for community programs.

When visiting, keep an eye out for the vibrant feather skillfully included in the mural by Whatley as a tribute to her late father, the accomplished artist Ron “Wandering Feather” Randolph.

Last updated: Jun 21, 2023

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