• The design for the National Juneteenth Museum mirrors the nova star — representing new beginnings — that can be found on the Juneteenth flag. - rendering by BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group & Atchain

Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021, 155 years after it was first celebrated. The holiday marks June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger and his Union soldiers landed in Galveston and shared with Texans General Order Number 3, which proclaimed all slaves to be free. The announcement came two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. 

A major force behind the passing of the bill recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday is Dr. Opal Lee, a long-time resident of Fort Worth and community advocate for the city’s Historic Southside neighborhood, which is located two blocks south of downtown. Among her many accomplishments, the most notable may be her 1,400-mile walk from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., in 2016 at the age of 89 to convince lawmakers to recognize the holiday. In her own neighborhood, she has championed the preservation of Juneteenth, seeing the celebration grow from a community picnic to a multiday celebration complete with a parade, 5K run, festival, job fair, and more. 

Dubbed “the grandmother of Juneteenth,” Lee has also operated a local Juneteenth Museum at the intersection of Evans Avenue and Rosedale Street since 2005 and long petitioned for its expansion. Last summer, a design for the new facility was unveiled. The new 50,000-sf building has big ambitions as it strives to build on Lee’s legacy, educate the public on Juneteenth history, and serve as an economic boost to the Historic Southside neighborhood. The proposed facility will house more than exhibit space. The building program includes a 250-seat theater, black box flexible space, business incubator, and food hall. The city of Fort Worth has pledged $15 million to the project, and long-time backer Jarred Howard — named CEO of the forthcoming museum this spring — is spearheading a campaign to raise the balance of the project’s $70 million estimated cost. 

Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) was hired as lead architect, partnering with the local team of KAI Enterprises. A few design teams preceded them, and what began as plans for a modest museum expansion developed over time into a more ambitious vision. Douglass Alligood, AIA, NOMA, BIG’s partner in charge on the project, recalls his team’s first meeting with the community: “How many promises had the community leaders heard? I wear black all the time, I talk fast, I’m from New York — that alone annoys a lot of people. Others would come in thinking they know something, but we showed up ready to listen. We wanted to hear what they had to say, what they’ve been through, what their viewpoint is on their own neighborhood.” Simultaneously, the design team did their own research on the neighborhood, learning about its vibrant history, important Black pioneers, and its economic decline after highway construction in the 1960s divided the neighborhood from downtown. Their approach facilitated trust and garnered important feedback for the museum’s vision. 

One thing that surprised the design team was learning that the highway has been accepted as part of life by the community. The group expressed a desire for the building to remain modest in height, yet visible from the highway to draw in visitors. The community and museum board noted several other priorities for the new building. It should have a “wow” factor, but first and foremost, it should connect and anchor the community, not displace them. The building should be environmentally friendly, have outdoor spaces, and be open and inviting, with ample opportunities for educational murals and art. Alligood says this latter goal sparked the idea of creating folding surfaces, each an opportunity to display and commemorate important community stories and history. Indeed, the conceptual design unveiled by BIG features a series of folded roof planes located around a central undulating facade, which mirrors the nova star — representing new beginnings — on the Juneteenth flag. It is the project’s major architectural move and, symbolism aside, seems to accomplish several of the stated goals at once. The unique shape forms a horizontal billboard that is sure to capture the attention of cars speeding along the highway, while also maintaining a scale appropriate to its context. The sunburst form is paired with exterior glass facades that allow for transparency through the building and deep roof overhangs creating a series of welcoming front porches facing the neighborhood. 

The building design is in its early stages and bound to evolve along with the design process. The concept design has served its intended purpose of capturing the public’s attention and bringing to life — at least through computer-aided renderings — a tangible vision for the museum’s future. The importance of the project is not lost on Alligood, who notes: “To work on a project that is focused on community and focused on a part of American history that is also personal to me and my ancestry makes working on this project something that is spiritually uplifting, deeply moving, and profound.” It is hoped that new Juneteenth Museum will spark a similar experience for its visitors and users, serving as more than a static relic of the past. If successful, the museum will also enable transformative change for a long ignored and under-resourced community.

Audrey Maxwell, AIA, is a principal at Malone Maxwell Dennehy Architects in Dallas.

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