New London — In front of the Amistad ship replica at Waterfront Park, Gov. Ned Lamont signed a bill making Juneteenth a state holiday in Connecticut on Friday.
Lamont already had signed the bill into law in May, but Friday’s ceremonial signing showed just how consequential Democrats, including state Rep. Anthony Nolan of New London, consider the legislation.
“The importance of this day was something we fought hard for in the legislature this year. … It’s been something that we’ve been waiting for and trying to get for a long time,” Nolan said Friday. I wanted to make sure everybody knew how important this was, and we’re just real grateful to you guys being here to help us send this off. ”
Juneteenth on June 19 marks the day in 1865 when Union soldiers delivered the news to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, that they were freed — more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the Confederacy had surrendered.
Other New Londoners offered remarks Friday including Olivia Campbell, a 2022 Connecticut Kid Governor cabinet member and fifth grader from Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School in New London. She spoke to how Juneteenth can be an opportunity for education.
“Most people around my age are familiar with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month, but may be unfamiliar with Juneteenth, a day … to honor a rich tradition in Black history, which officially became a federal holiday last year, ”Campbell said.
As the Amistad loomed in the background, its significance was not lost on those in attendance. In 1839 slave traders abducted African people from Sierra Leone in an attempt to sell them into the slave trade. traders in an uprising.
According to the National Archives, “on August 24, 1839, the Amistad was seized off Long Island, NY, by the US brig Washington. The schooner, its cargo, and all on board were taken to New London, CT. The plantation owners were freed and the Africans were imprisoned on charges of murder. ”
Abolitionists found legal defense for the African people and the matter became a well-publicized court case. The US Supreme Court ultimately decided in favor of the Africans, who were defended vigorously by former US President John Quincy Adams.
According to the Black Heritage Trail placard just a few thousand feet from where Friday’s news conference took place, “In 1841 the Supreme Court ordered the captives freed. In November 1841, the 35 survivors sailed to Sierra Leone. Back in New London, the Amistad and its contents were auctioned from the US Custom House steps. ”
The Amistad replica, which was docked at City Pier on Friday, serves as a floating classroom with programs geared toward racial and social justice issues.
“The Amistad, which is docked behind us today, is a testament to the birthright of humanity and dignity,” Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz said. their freedom. Today we’re here to recognize the trauma of our African American community and to start in a small way to correct the wrongs of our past. ”
Lamont spoke to how the United States has for a long time not lived up to the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that it was founded upon, leaving out “a vast majority of Americans,” including slaves.
“It reminds me of those who want to airbrush our history. It’s dangerous if you’re not willing to learn from our past, and I think that’s what Juneteenth is all about,” Lamont said. Well, Juneteenth reminds us that it’s a continuing struggle. It reminds us that the war didn’t stop. … Every day is a struggle for our country to form a more perfect union, where everybody is welcome, and everybody has the opportunity to live up to their highest ideals and dreams. ”
Following the news conference, Lamont and some of the other politicians in attendance boarded the Amistad and toured both above and below deck.
The governor was not the only one to mention “those who want to airbrush our history.” Norwich NAACP President Sheila Hayes said, “We need to make sure that we ensure the correct history is taught to our children and all the children in the school. system. ”
Hayes pointed out in her remarks that former Norwich NAACP President Jackie Owens started talking to branch members about Juneteenth in 1988. The group held its first commemorative celebration of the holiday 33 years ago. New London City Council President Pro Tem Rheonna Dyess noted that the New London NAACP began formally celebrating Juneteenth eight years ago.
A host of state politicians were in attendance, including state Reps. Christine Conley, D-Groton, and Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, and Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, as well as members of New London governmental bodies including city councilors and Board of Education members.
Renowned, and now-retired, New London prosecutor Lonnie Braxton also was invited to speak on Friday.
“Today we can all enjoy our freedom. Freedom, freedom that came at last, when on June 19th, 1865, it was said that Major General Gordon Granger read these words in downtown Galveston Texas … freeing 250,000 enslaved people in Texas,” Braxton said. “We should also note that this reading came some two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation became the law of the land.”
“When I was a child in Mississippi my grandparents always referred to it as’Jubilee Day,’” Braxton continued. “In the ensuing decades, Juneteenth celebrations featured music, concerts … and other activities. As Black people migrated from Texas to other parts of the country, the Juneteenth celebration spread, not only nationwide, but worldwide. There are now Juneteenth celebrations in a number of other countries. ”
Friday’s event, which also featured African drummers playing before and after remarks from dignitaries, only made sidelong references to a floor debate on the Juneteenth bill this past legislative session. The bill was passed almost unanimously in both chambers. But the vote sparked a tense debate about history and racism on the House floor after Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, R-Greenwich, spoke about the framers of the Constitution and said the “people founding this country knew that slavery was wrong.” She also argued that “disparities do not come from discrimination. ”
Democratic legislators pushed back, bringing up the Three-fifths Compromise, which was an agreement between northern and southern states that counted three-fifths of a state’s slave population for purposes of determining how many representatives the state would get in the US House of Representatives.
Fiorello spoke again, saying that deal was “a compromise in favor toward freedom” and said “the wonderful thing about the debate” at the time was that slaveholding states wanted full recognition of Black people. But she omitted that Southern states were aiming to gain more nationwide electoral power and not at all looking to fully recognize the humanity of Black people.
Fiorello’s comments caused an act of solidarity among Democrats as Black legislators looked to correct the record. Dozens of Democratic lawmakers stood behind Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, who was in attendance in New London on Friday, as she responded to Fiorello.
Porter said the compromise showed that “Black people, men, women and children, were not seen as whole individuals, whole human beings, for the purpose of taxation and representation.”
Nolan also addressed Fiorello’s comments.
“To hear people talk about disparities and discrimination and say that it has nothing to do with race — my aunts, my grandparents, my mother, were part of a time in history where they had to tolerate people touching their hair, trying to figure out if it’s real or fake, or having to deal with name-calling and things that people felt were OK, ”Nolan said.“ If you have not experienced the disparity, that’s OK. But you cannot say there is none. ”