Perfect weather brings crowds to Juneteenth, Civil War encampment

Audience members take turns ringing the Freedom Bell on the front lawn at Norwich City Hall as the bell is presented during the Juneteenth Day celebration in Norwich Saturday June 16 2012.
Audience members take turns ringing the Freedom Bell on the front lawn at Norwich City Hall as the bell is presented during the Juneteenth Day celebration in Norwich Saturday June 16 2012. Tim Cook/The Day

Norwich — The city's new Emancipation Proclamation Bell rang out loud and clear for the first time Saturday evening, with NAACP Norwich Branch President Jacqueline Owens giving the rope on the newly installed clapper its first tug.

More than 100 spectators cheered and applauded.

City and state dignitaries rang the bell, followed by dozens of city residents of all ages.

"Let freedom ring," state Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, called out, her words drowned out by the bell tone, forcing her to repeat them.

Not to be outdone, the City Hall clock tower bell chimed in to mark the 6 o'clock hour.

The bell — cast, cleaned and delivered by the Verdin Bell Co. of Cincinnati — is the first bell in the nation dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The bell was the highlight of a three-day Freedom Weekend celebration to mark the anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's declaration that all slaves in the rebellious southern states were free. Perfect weather greeted all the events, and the crowds responded Saturday.

The annual NAACP Juneteenth celebration at Howard T. Brown Memorial Park hosted the creation of the Emancipation Proclamation Bell along with dozens of food, craft and information booths, a health fair and live entertainment.

The celebration marks the unknown June 1863 date when slaves in Galveston, Texas, learned of Lincoln's proclamation that took effect months earlier on Jan. 1, 1863. Far north in Norwich, the city marked that date by ringing bells for an hour and firing a 100-gun salute.

A re-enactment is planned on New Year's Day 2013, with the new Emancipation Bell as the centerpiece.

The bell emerged Saturday morning from its hardened sand mold, courtesy of a few sledgehammer swings from Mayor Peter Nystrom and Emancipation Proclamation Commemoration Committee member Kathy Barry-Shannon and more jackhammer work by a crew of experts from the Verdin Bell Co.

Within minutes, the blackened 250-pound bronze bell was hoisted by crane onto a stand for the more than 100 onlookers to see. "Norwich, there's your Freedom Bell," Verdin Vice President David Verdin called out.

"It looks all black and ugly," said Kathryn Lord, standing in the front row.

A day of sanding and polishing by Verdin crews revealed by evening a bright, shiny bell featuring an image of Lincoln and the words "Forever Free: Emancipation Proclamation 150th Anniversary January 1, 2013."

The shards of the sandy mold were still hot as people started collecting them for souvenirs. Resident Henry Olender approached city Historian Dale Plummer — who first suggested and then planned the 150th anniversary celebration — and asked him to sign his piece. Nystrom collected a piece for a permanent display at City Hall. Another was presented to Prague, who will retire from the state Senate at age 86 this year.

People had plenty of events to shift their attention to after the bell emerged from its mold. Some immediately lined up for a tour of the replica schooner Amistad. Others took a quick drive to the Norwichtown Green to watch as 18 Civil War Union soldiers and two 10-year-old boys as camp helpers drilled and practiced firing.

First Sgt. Don Hamel of the 8th Connecticut Volunteers explained to onlookers the drill and gave close-up looks at the wool uniforms, muskets and rifles, packs and even the hardtack they carried. The two boys, Colin Barry and Luke Lessard, both of Norwich, were tasked with cleaning the weapons after the drill.

"They're my helpers," Hamel, also of Norwich, said.

The 8th and 14th Volunteer regiments were originally scheduled to stay at the Norwichtown Green through today but left Saturday afternoon.

Steady lines formed at the Amistad, as 40 people at a time were allowed to board for 20 minutes and hear Amistad America volunteers tell the story of the famous 1839 voyage when 53 kidnapped Africans broke their chains, captured the crew and tried to sail home again.

Amistad America volunteer Sherwood Lewis of Bloomfield repeatedly told tourists it would be a mistake to call the Africans "slaves." He called them instead "captives" and told how the African slave trade at the time was illegal. Ship owners tried to pass the Africans off as Cuban slaves and gave them Spanish names. But they didn't speak a word of Spanish, so the farce was easily exposed, he said.

Instead of sailing back to Africa, the ship zigzagged up the Atlantic Ocean, was stopped by a U.S. Navy vessel at the mouth of Long Island Sound and was brought to the New London Custom House. After a trial that gained international attention, the Africans were set free.

Antonio and Mary Barboza boarded the Amistad for the first time Saturday. They had seen the ship in various locations at the Connecticut shore before but never got the chance to board it. The timing proved perfect, too, because by chance, Antonio Barboza had seen the movie "Amistad" — filmed at Mystic Seaport — playing on HBO that morning.

"It's amazing," he said. "They built this ship all those years ago. With today's technology, they were able to build it again."

c.bessette@theday.com

Volunteers aboard the Freedom Schooner Amistad give tours and history of the boat docked at Howard T. Brown park as Norwich celebrates Juneteenth Day with events across the city including the unveiling and parade of the Freedom Bell in Norwich Saturday June 16 2012.
Volunteers aboard the Freedom Schooner Amistad give tours and history of the boat docked at Howard T. Brown park as Norwich celebrates Juneteenth Day with events across the city including the unveiling and parade of the Freedom Bell in Norwich Saturday June 16 2012. Tim Cook/The Day
The front lawn of the Norwich City Hall is filled as people come to see and hear the Freedom Bell as it is presented at the City Hall after a parade from Howard T. Brown Memorial Park in Norwich Saturday.
The front lawn of the Norwich City Hall is filled as people come to see and hear the Freedom Bell as it is presented at the City Hall after a parade from Howard T. Brown Memorial Park in Norwich Saturday. Tim Cook/The Day
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