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Juneteenth Marked Around Connecticut, The First Time As An Official Holiday

The advent of Juneteenth as a federal holiday this year also saw the day more widely celebrated than ever in Connecticut. While the state’s larger and more diverse cities have long held annual Juneteenth events, many of Connecticut’s smaller towns also marked the occasion this year.

Ridgefield, Norwalk, Portland and Windham were among those getting in on the celebrations. Middletown and Manchester both held events described as “inaugural” or “1st annual.”

In West Hartford, the commemoration included the unveiling of a huge mural celebrating Black achievement.

The centerpiece of the artwork features Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., flanked by other civil rights leaders.

Adrienne Billings-Smith, founder of Concerned Parents of Color of West Hartford, and chair of the town’s Juneteenth committee, said she hopes the mural opens up conversations.

“What we wanted was a journey to freedom, so West Hartford’s history,” she said.

The mural enshrines the names of many lost to violence.

“Whether that be police brutality, whether that be being a trans person of color -- those names are there -- and we also have names of individuals who were enslaved right here in West Hartford,” Billings-Smith said.

That includes a representation of Bristow -- an enslaved man who bought his freedom from Thomas Hart Hooker in 1775. His manumission paper is held by the Connecticut Historical Society. 

There are also plenty of more recent local connections, including a section that Billings-Smith calls an “homage to the women of West Hartford.”

“Gertrude Blanks, the first African American woman to graduate from Hall High School, to Judy Casperson, the first Black woman to hold local office for our town council, and now Rep. Tammy Exum, the first Black woman to hold state office out of West Hartford.”

Tammy Exum
Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Connecticut state Rep. Tammy Exum, in red, climbs the steps under a mural that bears her likeness, and those of prominent civil rights leaders, at the Noah Webster Library in West Hartford on June 19, 2021.

Exum was in attendance to see her likeness unveiled on the wall of the town library. 

“This is bigger than anything I would ever have imagined,” she said. “The honor, the awe of this is wonderful, but it’s overwhelmingly amazing for me.”

Exum was the first Black member of the town’s Board of Education in 2013, the first Black woman to represent the 19th District, and will shortly be the first Black woman who will be part of the state’s redistricting committee.

“Too many firsts,” she said. “Because I am amazed at that; that in 2021, I would be the first anything,” she said.

Elsewhere in the state, the Mystic Seaport Museum held a joint celebration with the replica schooner and slaving vessel Amistad. The two-hour event included live music, a panel discussion and tours of the ship. 

“The fight to combat racism is not over, and there is something everyone can do,” said Sarah Cahill, director of education at the Mystic Seaport Museum. “And so I really love this idea of participants making some kind of a commitment during the ceremony, just in their way, nothing has to be too overwhelming for them but in their own way to continue to promote social justice.”

Social justice was front and center during a virtual Juneteenth celebration hosted by New England Health Care Employees Union District 1199 SEIU, the union that has fought for higher wages and better working conditions for nursing home caregivers and other essential workers in Connecticut during the pandemic.

“We are descended from people who were brought to this continent in bondage,” said union leader Rob Baril. “All of us on this call understand what it is to have to fight for the most basic rights and dignity.”

He made clear the commemoration of Juneteenth and the end of chattel slavery has more than a symbolic significance for his members.

“We understand that the face of caregiving, the face of health care workers in this country is the face of a Black woman. Black women who labored in the master’s hall, caring for the master’s children, caring for the master’s wife," Baril said.

The meeting was addressed by the Rev. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. He said he has trouble with the concept of Juneteenth being a celebration.

“You can never relax or retreat when it comes to standing against injustice,” he said. “And in a real sense I hope that that’s really what this Juneteenth -- I want to say commemoration -- is really about. It should be a time when we reconsecrate ourselves.”

And Barber had uncompromising words for the federal politicians who moved swiftly last week to make Juneteenth an official holiday this year.

“What could make supporting Juneteenth holiday a form of cynical hypocrisy?” he asked. “You vote, as the entire United States Senate did, unanimously for Juneteenth to be a holiday, but at the same time you are refusing to restore the Voting Rights Act. That’s cynical hypocrisy.”

WSHU’s Brian Scott Smith contributed to this report.

Harriet Jones is Managing Editor for Connecticut Public Radio, overseeing the coverage of daily stories from our busy newsroom.

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