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    Monday, July 22, 2024

    Norwich celebrates Juneteenth with songs, dances and messages of freedom

    Haitian youth dancers, from left, Christyna Riffin, 16, Yousebelie Fortune, 15, Francesca Celestin,15, and Witchele Jacques perform during the Juneteenth commemoration ceremony on the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard on Wednesday, June 19, 2024, at Norwich City Hall. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    A group of young girls raise the Juneteenth flag during the Juneteenth commemoration ceremony on the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard on Wednesday, June 19, 2024, at Norwich City Hall. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, the keynote speaker, speaks during the Juneteenth commemoration ceremony on the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard on Wednesday, June 19, 2024, at Norwich City Hall. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Morgan Allen of the NAACP Robertson Duncan Youth Council, sings “Lift Every Voice, the Negro National Anthem,” during the Juneteenth commemoration ceremony on the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard on Wednesday, June 19, 2024, at Norwich City Hall. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Rev. Dr. Terrlyn Curry Avery receives a State of Connecticut General Assembly Official Citation from state Rep. Derell Wilson, D-Norwich, second from right, state Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, and state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, during the Juneteenth commemoration ceremony on the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard on Wednesday, June 19, 2024, at Norwich City Hall. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Emmanuela Prempeh, NAACP Robertsine Duncan Youth Council president, during the Juneteenth commemoration ceremony on the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard on Wednesday, June 19, 2024, at Norwich City Hall. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Norwich ― Emmaneula Prempeh, president of the Norwich NAACP youth council looked out at the more than 40 people gathered at Wednesday’s Juneteenth ceremony at City Hall and thought that 159 years ago, such a gathering to celebrate freedom for Black people would have been “unfathomable.”

    Even her presence at the podium, a Black female student about to enter her senior year at Norwich Free Academy, addressing a group of people of various races, from a U.S. congressman to state legislators, the mayor, council members, teachers and residents would not have been possible.

    Several speakers at Wednesday’s Norwich Juneteenth ceremony remarked on the progress made since June 19, 1865, the date when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger broke the news to enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, that President Abraham Lincoln had declared them free two years earlier.

    But they also noted the struggles that still exist.

    Guest speaker state Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, said efforts over the years to prevent Black people from learning to read, from access to good jobs, housing and health care all are forms of bondage.

    “When I was in school, I was not taught about Juneteenth,” Nolan said. “I was not taught anything about what, when, where or how, when it came to Juneteenth. At one time, I wanted to go back and sue my school district because of that.”

    Attendees at Wednesday’s event, held at the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard in front of Norwich City Hall, sat or stood in the hot sun or sought the limited shade of small trees and the City Hall front entrance roof. Organizers handed out small colorful cardboard fans printed with the definition of Juneteenth and the words: “Juneteenth. Commemorate, Educate, Celebrate.”

    Nolan said he is grateful to his colleagues in the state legislature for mandating that African American studies be part of school curriculum in Connecticut. Juneteenth became a state holiday in 2022, one year after President Joe Biden signed a law making Juneteenth a federal holiday.

    Nolan recalled floor fights in the General Assembly during debates over whether to make Juneteenth a state holiday. He said ensuring an awareness of the meaning of Juneteenth for people of all races is important.

    “We have to highlight why this is a historical day,” Nolan said. “Although Juneteenth is the oldest recognized celebration by African Americans, it is only recognized as a holiday recently.”

    Wednesday’s celebration extended beyond African Americans’ fight for freedom. The Haitian Youth Dancers, formed by four NFA students, performed two dances celebrating Haiti’s 1804 independence from the French government. Students Christyna Riffin, Witchele Jacques, Francesca Celestin and Yousebelie Fortune, all of Norwich, wore colorful, flowing dresses and danced to Haitian songs that celebrated liberty.

    The Norwich NAACP Robertsine Duncan Youth Council presented its annual Daniel D. Jenkins Memorial Award to the Rev. Terrlyn Curry Avery. Avery, a psychologist and minister, who uses the term “pastology” to describe her work, which focuses on the synergy between pastoral ministry and psychology. She coached leaders on how to address concepts of racism and biases in employment.

    Avery thanked the NAACP youth council for the award and said she also thanks her immediate Black ancestors from where she grew up in Mississippi and ancestors from centuries past who endured the Atlantic crossing into slavery, lived through slavery and fought for freedom.

    She urged Wednesday’s audience to educate themselves on the issues and vote for candidates who “truly have your best interests in mind” and to keep fighting for equality.

    “I want to encourage you to keep doing the work, just like our ancestors did, because the work is not over,” Avery said.

    c.bessette@theday.com

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