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'A day to pause': Seaport hosts Juneteenth celebration

Mystic — A day of reflection. A day of education. And for educator Karen Francis-Barnes, Juneteenth is a “symbol of an ideal we are still trying to achieve.”

Francis-Barnes was one of the panelists to delve into the history and meaning of Juneteeth during a celebration at the Mystic Seaport Museum on Saturday, an event sponsored by the Seaport and Discovering Amistad. There was music, tours of the replica schooner Amistad and a discussion that touched on slavery, human rights and racism.

President Joe Biden signed legislation on Thursday making Juneteenth the newest federal holiday, a day meant to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. The name comes from the date of June 19, 1865, when news of the end of slavery finally reached slaves in Texas, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

While a significant step toward freedom, panelists at Saturday’s event pointed out that the end of slavery did not mean former slaves suddenly left plantations to begin life on their own. Poor, uneducated and without land of their own, many of the former slaves returned to work for their former masters as sharecroppers — slavery by another name, Francis-Barnes said.

Paula Mann-Agnew, executive director of Discovering Amistad, said Juneteenth is symbolic and a time to remember the “struggles and triumphs of the African American community.”

“It’s a day to recommit ourselves to addressing racism and promoting social justice,” she said. “It’s a day for us to pause.”

The pause, she said was for the 15 million people of African descent that were subjugated to the horrors of slavery for the financial benefit of their owners.

Bob King, a Discovering Amistad board member, called Juneteenth “an American holiday that should be led by African Americans and celebrated by all Americans.”

Saturday’s events were celebrated within view of the Amistad, docked on the seaport's waterfront. The replica ship serves as a floating classroom with programs geared toward racial and social justice issues. In 1839, there was an uprising on board the original Amistad by Mende captives from Sierra Leone, who took control of the ship from their captors. The ship wound up in New London. The Mende captives, charged with murder and piracy, eventually won their freedom in an important U.S. Supreme Court case in 1841.

Jacqueline Lee, 43, of New Jersey said she had heard the name Amistad but never knew the story and was impressed after learning about it. Joined by her 6-year-old Damon, Lee was looking forward to a tour of the ship.  

“We’re out here celebrating the end of slavery and now I’m learning about slaves who revolted against their masters and won their freedom," Howard said. "Good for them.”

Starting in July, Amistad will be open for tours at the Seaport on Saturday and Sunday.

g.smith@theday.com

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