Region commemorates Juneteenth
New London — Speaking at the Juneteenth Festival at the Hempsted Houses, New London City Council President and keynote speaker Efraín Dominguez reflected on the history of slavery and said it's important to acknowledge the past, learn from it and make sure it does not happen anymore.
Juneteenth marks the day when General Gordon Granger and Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, and took control of the state and guaranteed that 250,000 people enslaved were set free, two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Dominguez said.
People gathered on Saturday at the Hempsted Houses for the 7th annual Juneteenth Celebration for a day of talks, poetry and music performances. The Public Art for Racial Justice Education unveiled a diptych painting of the Edmund Pettus Bridge by artists Nancy Gladwell and Jasmin Oroyo, durng the event hosted in partnership with the NAACP-New London Branch and the Opportunities Industrialization Center. City Councilors Reona Dyess and Curtis Goodwin were emcees.
"We are not descendants of slaves," New London Poet Laureate Josh Brown said during the festival. "We are descendants of engineers, we are descendants of doctors, educators, midwives, spiritual healers, we are descendants of people who were abducted and enslaved — because language is important. What we teach our students is important."
Standing on the outdoor stage, Tammy Denease portrayed the story of Joan Jackson, who was the mother of Adam Jackson, a farmer enslaved at the Hempsted Houses.
"I tell you that the pain of a mother, the pain of a father, when a child is separated and sold, there are no words to describe," she said. "There is no consideration given to those of us who are separated from our loved ones, never to see them again. You see, as I told you at the beginning, my story is not uncommon. It is a story that is just untold."
The event featured a panel discussion with Tamara Lanier, vice president of the New London NAACP and plaintiff in the Lanier vs. Harvard reparations lawsuit; Denease, who runs the Hidden Women Stage Company; Joseph McGill, the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project; Daryl McGraw, founder and director of Formerly Inc. and chair of the Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force in the state of Connecticut.
Lanier spoke about how the 13th Amendment freed slaves except for the punishment of crime. She said with that catch-all clause came the criminalization of Black life, which did not happen by accident but by design and went from the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws and the civil rights era to mass incarceration.
"The problem is we haven't really sat back and looked at the history of the penal system and how it evolved," she said.
McGraw called the about 40 people gathered to listen to the talk "disruptors." He said for years and years, people looked the other way and did not speak up against slavery, and it continued.
"We need more disruptors. We need your voice," he said. "We need you to, if you work at a place and you see someone being discriminated against, make it your problem. If there are no Black people working at your organization, make it your problem because that's the only way we move forward. We only move forward when you get involved. You can no longer look the other way. We are beyond that."
Juneteenth in the region
The region will be hosting upcoming Juneteenth events next week, from the 32nd Juneteenth Day Ceremony in Norwich on Friday to Discovering Amistad and Mystic Seaport Museum's Juneteenth Celebration on Friday.
Paula Mann-Agnew, the executive director of Discovering Amistad, said Juneteenth symbolizes the end of slavery so it's a time to pause and celebrate, but also to keep an eye on the journey to freedom and the struggle that has continued to this day. She said it's a day to celebrate, educate people and open up discussions around social justice.
The Mystic Seaport Museum event will include a West African drum call, music, a panel discussion on Juneteenth and its relevance today, and a "Harambee" reflection in which people will have an opportunity to reflect on how they could become agents of change for racial and social justice, she said. Steps people could take range from being an ally through social justice movements to supporting Black businesses.
Dexter J. Gabriel, assistant professor of History and Africana Studies at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, who grew up going to Juneteenth celebrations in Texas, said that after the end of slavery, there were a host of emancipation celebrations, from the day the 13th Amendment was ratified to the day the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Lincoln, to localized events.
He said many of those celebrations sputtered away for reasons such as the rising tide of racism after the end of Reconstruction, which made it difficult for African Americans to have freedom celebrations, to some African Americans becoming disillusioned after Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow laws and questioned what is the point of having celebrations.
He said the "the miracle story" is that in Texas the celebration "endured and it beat back all of the odds and it continued." During the Great Migration, African Americans brought the holiday with them.
Juneteenth took off on a national level, when during the Poor People's Campaign, Rev. Ralph Abernathy on June 19, 1968, called on people to take Juneteenth home with them as a form of cultural and social and civic engagement and as a memory of emancipation and what the civil rights movement means.
By the 1980s and 1990s, Juneteenth celebrations were taking off around the United States.
Norwich was the first city in Connecticut to host a Juneteenth celebration, in 1989, ushered in by then NAACP Norwich Branch President Jacqueline Owens, who was from the Midwest, said Sheila Hayes, president of the NAACP Norwich Branch. Hayes said the ceremony has been held every year since then, even last year during the coronavirus pandemic, though it was scaled back significantly.
Connecticut recognized Juneteenth for state observation in 2003, said Jeffrey O'Leary, a Mitchell College associate professor. State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said a bill proposing Juneteenth as a legal holiday in Connecticut passed the House.
O'Leary said learning about Juneteenth and its history helps illuminate the past in vital socio-cultural ways. O'Leary teaches courses including Marble, Monuments, and Memory: Culture and Commemoration in Society and an upcoming course for 2021 called African American History: From Arrival to Reconstruction.
For people interested in learning more about Juneteenth, he recommends a book by Annette Gordon-Reed, called "On Juneteenth."
Hayes said Juneteenth is taking on an even greater significance following the murders of Blacks and minorities and the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Black people and other minorities. She noted that Connecticut passed a bill that racism is a public health crisis.
"It continues to remind everyone that we're still fighting the struggle," she said. "The struggle hasn't ended for Black people. We were given our freedom from slavery but that doesn't mean we're on par or we're equal or we have equity in this country, and I really believe that's the significance of all of last year and why Juneteenth continues to be an important celebration and remembrance for us."
A sampling of upcoming Juneteenth events in the region:
- 32nd Juneteenth Day Ceremony in the City of Norwich held by the NAACP Norwich Branch with the City of Norwich and Global City Norwich, 9:30 a.m. Friday, June 18 in the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard, 100 Broadway, Norwich.
- Hike to Venture Smith's Homestead on Barn Island led by Liz Kading and Professor Nancy Steenburg, 10 am - 11:30 am June 19; stoningtonhistory.org for reservations.
- Boat Tour: White Sails, Black Hands. The African American Experience on CT Waters, 2:30 p.m. - 3:45 pm Saturday, June 19; departs from Fort Trumbull State Park, http://bit.ly/trhpwsbh
- Juneteenth celebration held by Discovering Amistad and Mystic Seaport Museum, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, June 19, at Mystic Seaport Museum.
- Dream Market Juneteenth Jubilation, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, June 19 at Mercer Street, New London
- Juneteenth Freedom Day Celebration presented by Blooming into Greatness (music, dancing, spoken word), 5:30 p.m. Saturday, June 19 at Donald L. Oat Theater, 62 Broadway, Norwich