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Norwich Juneteenth ceremony celebrates federal holiday designation

Norwich — The Norwich NAACP has hosted a Juneteenth event since 1989, ranging from crowded waterfront festivals to 2020’s brief COVID-19 restricted ceremony.

On Friday, participants cheered the day's new status as a federal holiday.

“This is a day of jubilee!” the Rev. Jerry Davis started her invocation prayer. “That means we are happy. We are rejoicing, and we are glad!”

She thanked God and said: "We are moving forward. We are moving forward!”

The landmark federal legislation that passed swiftly this week in Congress and signed by President Joe Biden on Thursday makes Juneteenth a federal holiday. Speakers Friday repeatedly honored the late Jacqueline Owens, former president of the Norwich NAACP, who brought the previously unknown day to Norwich in 1989 in the first celebration in Connecticut.

Juneteenth, officially celebrated on June 19, marks the date in 1865 when Union troops brought news of freedom to former enslaved Blacks in Galveston, Texas, 2½ years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation that freed enslaved people in the rebellious Confederate states.

Friday’s ceremony was held in the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard, where a giant granite stone engraved with Lincoln's proclamation stands aside Norwich’s Freedom Bell, forged during 2012 Juneteenth and rung on Jan. 1, 2013, the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s proclamation.

“Norwich is the source of strength in the state of Connecticut for recognizing the importance of this holiday way, way back,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District. He said “lightning struck in a good way” in Washington, as lawmakers put aside the usual gridlock to pass the legislation with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Courtney presented an embossed copy of the bill to Norwich NAACP President Shiela Hayes. The copy is signed by sponsor Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.

As the ceremony celebrated the history of Juneteenth, speakers recognized current and upcoming efforts toward racial equity.

The Daniel Jenkins II Award was presented to Rose City United, a group of youths and adults that has been meeting monthly with city police to plan neighborhood beautification projects and community picnics and to improve police-community relations. Cara-Lynn Turner, a member of Rose City United and co-founder of the popular Night Flight Basketball league, received the individual award.

Maryam Elahi, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, announced a new Fund for Racial Justice to support projects that promote racial equality.

The Rev. David Good of Old Lyme displayed a diptych painting, dual works framed in a hinged wooden case. The right side, painted by Nancy Caldwell of Old Lyme, depicts the historic images of the "Bloody Sunday" civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965. The other side, painted by Jasmine Oyola of Virginia, shows a colorful, peaceful celebration of integration.

Good will bring the diptych to programs at libraries, churches and schools throughout the region, including Sunday to the Pequot Chapel in New London.

Public art advocates will start fundraising for the matching share needed for a Sustainable CT grant for a $60,000 project that will pair two sets of sister communities, Norwich with East Lyme and New London with Old Lyme. A master muralist will design and paint the images at the Lyme Academy, with participation by local youths and volunteer painters, to be painted in the towns.

Hayes said she hopes to have the funding in place and the master muralist hired in time to start work in October.

Norwich’s Juneteenth celebration will continue at 5:30 p.m. Saturday with “Blooming into Greatness,” local youths performing music, dance and spoken word pieces at the Donald Oat Theater at Norwich Arts Center, 62 Broadway. The event is free and open to the public. Donations will be accepted to support local nonprofits.

“These young people are so excited not only just to perform but excited about this day, about Freedom Day, about Jubilee Day,” said Friday's emcee, Lashawn Cunningham. “I am encouraging you. I am asking you to please come out and support the young people, our tomorrow, and to continue to celebrate this weekend, Juneteenth Day.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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