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    Sunday, April 21, 2024

    NAACP Norwich Chapter hosts annual sweet potato festival with community in mind

    Sandra Miller, right, of North Franklin, serves Lillian Torres, of Norwich, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, during the Norwich NAACP Annual Sweet Potato Festival at Rose City Senior Center in Norwich. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    From left to right, Patricia Jones, Janet Jarmon and Nancy Herbert, all of Norwich, chat over lunch Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, during the Norwich NAACP Annual Sweet Potato Festival at Rose City Senior Center in Norwich. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Shiela Hayes, left, first vice president with Norwich NAACP, hands Peter Ballaro, a sweet potato pie with volunteer Dennis Jenkins, left, a member of the NAACP, looking on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, during the Norwich NAACP Annual Sweet Potato Festival at Rose City Senior Center in Norwich. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Norwich — The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Norwich Branch likes to stick to the organization's roots of collaboration.

    The force of over a dozen volunteers, ranging from high school students to senior citizens, came together at 8 a.m. on Saturday at the Rose City Senior Center in Norwich in preparation for its annual sweet potato festival. It’ll be more than 30 years since the first festival in the early 1990s.

    “The total collaboration to get the event together takes a couple of months, I'd say. It is a group effort. We just all come together,” said Tracey Holland, the festival’s head chef.

    The smell of soul food couldn’t be escaped from anywhere inside the center. The Black History Month event drew in 100 people, including Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom and State Representative Derrell Wilson, Norwich’s first Black state representative.

    “We'll have some people coming as far away as Old Saybrook today because this is an event [where] they want to celebrate Black History Month with us,” said Shiela Hayes, Norwich NAACP education coordinator.

    Hayes led the event with an upbeat, outgoing spirit that permeated throughout the room. She says food is a great way to unite people despite their backgrounds.

    “It’s delicious,” one patron said, smiling.

    Food played a quiet but insurmountable role in the Civil Rights Movement. Georgia Representative and civil rights leader John Lewis said decisions that "affected the direction of the country” were made at Paschal’s, a soul food restaurant in Atlanta. The movement's success led to equal rights for Black Americans under the law.

    Rooted in the Black community, Southern delicacies like sweet potatoes and cornbread are a rare but welcomed dish in the Northeast. Although Hayes declined to share their sweet potato recipe, she says despite it changing throughout the years, its creamy, rich taste remains the same.

    While most people were eating, some dedicated their day to serving food. Michael David Brathwaite, 73, joined the NAACP Norwich Branch when he first moved to the town 12 years ago. Brathwaite believes service is integral to a community.

    “A community of people from all different backgrounds, all different ethnic areas, all different economic levels … allows an individual to know they're not alone,” he said.

    t.wright@theday.com

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