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    Tuesday, June 18, 2024

    Norwich, Waterford add Juneteenth as a paid municipal holiday for employees

    Norwich was the first Connecticut city to celebrate Juneteenth 35 years ago, but it took three years after June 19 was made a federal holiday for the city to name it as an official city holiday.

    The Norwich City Council on Monday night voted unanimously to add June 19 to the list of city holidays as Juneteenth Independence Day. The holiday recognizes the historic event in 1865 when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, first learned they had been freed 2 1/2 years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln.

    On Tuesday, Waterford announced that the town also has added Juneteenth as an official town holiday.

    The state of Connecticut recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday in 2022.

    A strong supporter of the holiday, Norwich Alderman William Nash admitted he thought it had been recognized by the city already, as many Connecticut cities and towns had. Nash recalled 35 years ago as the city’s DARE police officer working with youths that he was proud Norwich became just the second city in the country to celebrate Juneteenth.

    “It was Houston, Texas, and Norwich, Connecticut,” Nash said. “We were put in the same category as a major city, so I was pretty proud at that time.”

    Norwich will hold a Juneteenth ceremony at 11 a.m. June 19 at the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard outside City Hall.

    Waterford Residents for Inclusion and Social Equity will host a Juneteenth program at the Waterford Community Center on June 15 from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

    But when the federal government created the federal holiday in 2021 and the state followed suit the next year, Norwich did not recognize the holiday by closing city offices. Last year, the City Council was criticized for holding a council meeting on that night.

    Mayor Peter Nystrom said Monday the delay was caused because the city policy is to negotiate holidays in union contracts. Two such contract negotiations are now in progress.

    “It’s not that the council ignored it,” Nystrom said. “It’s just that every holiday was collectively bargained previously. We’re actually going outside the collective bargaining process to do it. I think it’s worthy of taking that step, but I don’t want it mentioned that the city ignored it.”

    The Norwich resolution approved Monday calls for using $50,000 in the current city budget contingency account to cover anticipated $45,000 overtime costs for police and $5,000 for fire departments for those working on the new holiday. City Manager John Salomone said he included overtime costs in his proposed 2024-25 budget.

    Alderwoman Shiela Hayes credited longtime Norwich NAACP President Jacqueline Owens for her dogged advocacy first to get Norwich to celebrate Juneteenth with a festival and for years to try to get Congress to make it a federal holiday. Owens died before her dream became a reality.

    During public comment Monday, several speakers supported making Juneteenth a city holiday. Board of Education member Carline Charmelus told the council that Norwich Public Schools already recognize Juneteenth as a school holiday. Norwich schools are scheduled to end the year June 21 this year but will have a day off on June 19.

    Emmanuella Prempeh, president of the Norwich NAACP Robertsine Duncan Youth Council, said Norwich is known for celebrating diverse cultures represented in the city with flag-raising ceremonies and festivals. She said Black culture and history should be recognized as well.

    “I just love the way Norwich celebrates the different cultures it has,” she said.

    Waterford also adds the holiday

    Waterford First Selectman Rob Brule announced Tuesday in a news release, that the the decision to make Juneteenth a paid holiday for full-time town employees reflects the town’s commitment to honoring the rich cultural heritage and historical significance of Juneteenth,“ especially for African American residents.

    “This decision reflects our commitment to inclusivity in Waterford,” Brule wrote. “Juneteenth serves as a reminder of the progress we have made toward justice and equality, as well as the work that remains.”

    The additional cost to the town could not be immediately determined on Tuesday.

    The Southeastern Connecticut Organization for Racial Equity, in a statement, applauded Waterford for recognizing Juneteenth as an official holiday and encouraged other towns in the region to do the same. SCORE continues to urge cities and towns to pair these changes with efforts to promote racial equity.

    “For example, we recommend the formation of subcommittees for all town boards that view all town decisions through an equity lens,” SCORE said in its statement. “Doing so will promote progress toward racial equity in Southeastern Connecticut.”

    Day staff writer Daniel Drainville contributed to this report.

    Editor’s Note: This version corrects information about a Juneteenth event in Waterford.

    c.bessette@theday.com

    d.drainville@theday.com

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