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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Norwich celebrates Juneteenth history and its new significance

    The Pan-African flag flies alongside the Norwich Freedom Bell as the Norwich NAACP branch holds a celebration of Juneteenth on Friday, June, 19, 2020, at the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard in front of City Hall. Juneteenth is celebrated as the day in 1865 that enslaved African Americans in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln's order that freed all persons held as slaves in the rebellious states during the Civil War. Juneteenth is usually celebrated in Norwich with a festival but this year's event was scaled down due to coronavirus restrictions. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Norwich — Juneteenth traditionally has been celebrated here with a waterfront festival, barbecue and “strawberry pop,” highlighting the historic ways African Americans have celebrated the holiday that commemorates June 19, 1865, when slaves in Galveston, Texas, first learned they had been declared freed some 2½ years earlier.

    But as more than 50 people gathered Friday morning at the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard outside City Hall and heard the city’s own Freedom Bell ring 32 times for each year Norwich has celebrated Juneteenth, the historic significance of the day took on added meaning.

    Norwich created the freedom courtyard and commissioned and forged the bell during Juneteenth 2012, and it became part of a daylong celebration Jan. 1, 2013, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. On that day in 1863, Norwich celebrated with a 100-cannon salute and celebration. The Norwich NAACP was the first branch to celebrate Juneteenth in Connecticut in 1989 under longtime branch President Jacqueline Owens, the one who insisted that barbecue and strawberry soda be part of the ceremony, as they are traditionally part of Juneteenth celebrations in the South and other parts of the country.

    As the Norwich gathering marked the history of Juneteenth, in Hartford, state Democratic senators were crafting a Juneteenth agenda for the upcoming special session to address sweeping reforms in police policies and practices, education inequities, economic development inequities and to make Juneteenth a state holiday.

    Following Friday’s hourlong ceremony, Norwich NAACP branch President Shiela Hayes said she would support making Juneteenth a state holiday, because the state already recognizes Martin Luther King Day as a state holiday. Making Martin Luther King Day a national holiday would be her top priority, and with the current momentum on Juneteenth, she said, maybe the two could be done together.

    “We were supportive (of Juneteenth as a state and national holiday), but the Dr. Martin Luther King Day has not been made a national holiday,” Hayes said. “It’s a state holiday in the state. We would support (Juneteenth) in the state, but nationally, both need to happen together. There needs to be a national effort. I have strong feelings about that.”

    "It should be a national holiday," NAACP Youth Council President Karen Lau said of Juneteenth, "especially because it celebrates our history."

    The proposed Senate agenda included many police reform provisions endorsed by the national and local NAACP branches in early June, including a call for police civilian review boards, strengthening enforcement of racism-based false incident reporting and accountability reporting and tracking.

    At the podium Friday, state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, spoke early in the program to allow her to get to Hartford in time to release the special session platform. Osten called it a “very progressive” platform addressing police accountability, housing, education, economic development and health care.

    Hayes told the audience Friday morning that another national policy supported by the NAACP was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program created by President Barack Obama to provide protections from deportations and work permits to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. Trump had sought to eliminate the protections. Hayes quoted the national NAACP president calling the decision as significant as the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which declared segregated schools to be unconstitutional.

    “Yesterday was an amazing day for the national NAACP,” Hayes said. “The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the national NAACP verses Trump when it came to DACA.”

    At the ceremony Friday, Hayes read a summary of the history of Juneteenth, citing the order written by Union Major General Gordon Granger and read to freed slaves in Galveston on June 19, 1865. U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, later informed the audience that staff at the National Archive in Washington, D.C., found Granger’s original handwritten order on Thursday. The audience cheered.

    Courtney said the congressional Armed Forces Committee will move forward with plans to remove Confederate leaders’ names from military installations. “There are a host of other heroes in Army history that can substitute and do a much better job of showing the true mission of our country, which, again, is to be inclusive and to be open and that’s really the secret of America’s success.”

    Courtney pledged that a national police reform act also will pass in Congress. He said he has discussed the measures with Norwich police Chief Patrick Daley and other local chiefs in a “real positive conversation” on the bipartisan effort in Congress.

    "That did not happen because of some epiphany of legislative leaders,” Courtney said. “It was because the American people went out and expressed, used their First Amendment rights to talk about the change they want to see happen. And again, we’re seeing that here on Juneteenth as well.”

    After the bell ringing and the raising of the red, green and black African American freedom, or Pan-African, flag on a pole adjacent to the freedom courtyard, Juneteenth Committee Chairwoman Lashawn Cunningham couldn’t hold in her emotions.

    “As I stood there, I stood with tears in my eyes and weeping in my spirit as the bell rang,” Cunningham said choking back tears, “as if our ancestors are summoning us to continue the fight. So, although today we celebrate, we have to remember to continue the fight.”

    c.bessette@theday.com

    Michael Gilliard Jr. unfurls the Pan-African flag Friday, June, 19, 2020, before raising it as part of the Norwich NAACP branch's celebration of Juneteenth at the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard in front of City Hall. Juneteenth is celebrated as the day in 1865 that enslaved African Americans in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln's order that freed all persons held as slaves in the rebellious states during the Civil War. Juneteenth is usually celebrated in Norwich with a festival but this year's event was scaled down due to coronavirus restrictions. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Nehemiah Davis, 13, sings "Lift Every Voice and Sing" as the Norwich branch NAACP holds a Juneteenth celebration Friday, June, 19, 2020, at the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard in front of City Hall. Juneteenth is celebrated as the day in 1865 that enslaved African Americans in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln's order that freed all persons held as slaves in the rebellious states during the Civil War. Juneteenth is usually celebrated in Norwich with a festival but this year's event was scaled down due to coronavirus restrictions. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Michael Gilliard Jr. bows his head as he kneels alongside his aunt Netta Rodrigques, obscured, to the ringing of the Norwich Freedom Bell as part of the Norwich NAACP branch's Juneteenth celebration Friday, June, 19, 2020, at the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard in front of City Hall. Juneteenth is celebrated as the day in 1865 that enslaved African Americans in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln's order that freed all persons held as slaves in the rebellious states during the Civil War. Juneteenth is usually celebrated in Norwich with a festival but this year's event was scaled down due to coronavirus restrictions. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    The Pan-African flag flies alongside the Norwich Freedom Bell as the Norwich NAACP branch holds a Juneteenth celebration Friday, June, 19, 2020, at the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard in front of City Hall. Juneteenth is celebrated as the day in 1865 that enslaved African Americans in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln's order that freed all persons held as slaves in the rebellious states during the Civil War. Juneteenth is usually celebrated in Norwich with a festival but this year's event was scaled down due to coronavirus restrictions. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    The Pan-African flag flies alongside the Norwich Freedom Bell as the Norwich NAACP branch holds a Juneteenth celebration Friday, June, 19, 2020, at the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard in front of City Hall. Juneteenth is celebrated as the day in 1865 that enslaved African Americans in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln's order that freed all persons held as slaves in the rebellious states during the Civil War. Juneteenth is usually celebrated in Norwich with a festival but this year's event was scaled down due to coronavirus restrictions. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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