Artist Sedrick Huckaby Explores a Transnational Celebration of Juneteenth through Fulbright

Sedrick Huckaby and Opal Lee standing on either side of painting
Huckaby with Opal Lee and his portrait of her in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Photo credit: Natasha Johnson

Fulbrighter Sedrick Huckaby has a unique connection to fellow Fort Worth native Opal Lee, an educator, writer, and advocate known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.” Having known her since childhood, Huckaby has been a staunch supporter of her decades-long campaign to recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday marking the end of slavery in the United States.

On June 17, 2021, Lee’s efforts came to fruition when she joined President Joe Biden as he signed the bill declaring June 19 a federal holiday. Witnessing the Juneteenth commemoration signed into law was the culmination of a long-time dream for the 97 year-old Lee. Lee’s advocacy has also been commended with honorary doctorates from eight different universities.

Huckaby became the first artist to paint a live portrait of Lee, entitled “Portrait of an Author, Dr. Opal Lee.” During Lee’s visit to the University of Texas Arlington, where Huckaby was teaching art and art history, he presented her with the painting. The artwork features Lee with a book she authored about Juneteenth, against a backdrop of photos of individuals who have inspired her, such as former President Barack Obama.

Over the next few years, Huckaby and Lee’s shared commitment to honoring Juneteenth has propelled them both into conversations about freedom on the national and international stage. In 2022, Lee  was nominated for the Nobel Prize, and in May, 2024 she was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom.  That same year, a more formal portrait Huckaby painted of Lee was officially installed in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the two held a public discussion about the importance of Juneteenth, their roles as community leaders, and their respective visions.

Huckaby remarks that it is an “honor to have my portrait of a national hero, an individual I have come to know personally, become a permanent part of this exceptional institution.” He is proud that the painting joins a storied collection that features portraits of people who have had a significant impact on U.S. national identity and culture, including paintings of every president since the country’s founding, and portraits by some of the best artists in American history.

Huckaby, who holds a BFA from Boston University and an MFA from Yale University, received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award to Mexico to explore the concept of freedom through the lens of Juneteenth. His project took him to the town of Nacimiento in 2023 to make portraits of Mascogos community members. These individuals, descended from Afro-Seminoles in the United States, settled in Mexico to escape enslavement in the 19th century and have celebrated Juneteenth as “Dia de Los Negros” since the 1870s.

Huckaby learned that Juneteenth is slightly different in the Mascogos community. “In the U.S., we celebrate the final freedom from slavery, which also means our country has started a new chapter on its aspirations of freedom in general. There, they celebrate that same freedom, but they were never subjected to slavery.” Even after the Mascogos community successfully secured their own freedom in Mexico, they continued to combat slavery and “fought against it every step of the way.” The Mexican government enlisted members of the Mascogos community to combat slave catchers and Texas Rangers that were seeking runaway slaves in Mexico. In exchange, the Mexican government promised the land that would become Nacimiento.

The end of slavery in the United States meant that the Mascogos could finally receive the land promised to them at the end of the U.S. Civil War and that their relations still in the United States  would finally be free. Huckaby observes that Juneteenth for them meant a new beginning. “Consequently,” Huckaby says, “Juneteenth is kind of like the birthday of Nacimiento, which means birth place. It's the celebration of their new freedom and homestead that was bought with blood, sweat and tears.” During his Fulbright year, Huckaby made portraits of and collected statements from a wide variety of Mascogos, “from the oldest member to the youngest one.” He interviewed and painted “business owners, farmers, the cultural leader, a pastor, and even the newly elected community leader, the Comisariado,” producing over 100 pastels.       

Having returned to the United States, he plans to use the Nacimiento pastels as studies for a group of portraits that will incorporate information from the oral narratives, continuing his connection with the Mascogos community. He intends to exhibit the new collection on themes of identity, history, and international connectivity at the Talley Dunn Gallery in Dallas, Texas in 2025. Discussions are also underway with numerous museums about exhibiting the Fulbright project in the future.

“I cannot express how transformative this project has been for me personally,” says Huckaby. While some might “create walls and tell a one-sided history of our nations, this project helps me to build bridges and create a wider historical narrative. These projects not only highlight the beautiful story of freedom that Black Americans share with Afro-Mexicans, they also promote cultural growth and positive change.”

After completing his Fulbright, he says this year’s celebration of Juneteenth will hold even more significance. “I have had great respect for Mrs. Opal and her work for many years, and my project has only helped me the appreciate that work more. I hope that I help the world to see her amazing energy, compassion, her quest for the truth and moral insight.”

He plans to commemorate Juneteenth with family and friends in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, participating in Opal’s Walk For Freedom and celebrating at Kinfolk House. Kinfolk house is a collaborative project space he and his wife Letitia helped to found in a 100-year-old historic home first owned by his grandmother, in Fort Worth’s predominantly Black and Latina/e/o Polytechnic neighborhood. In the future, Huckaby hopes to travel to Mexico on Juneteenth to celebrate alongside the Mascogos community that so powerfully shaped his understanding of the holiday.

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