The Town of West Hartford held a ‘commUNITY’ celebration of Juneteenth on June 19, 2022.
By Ronni Newton
The atmosphere in Blue Back Square was filled with energy Sunday afternoon – with families enjoying the upbeat sounds of Afro Caribbean drumming and other music, eating delicious food, visiting vendor booths, as West Hartford held its third annual Juneteenth celebration – but along with the joy was a reminder of the importance of learning the the history behind the day.
Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when the enslaved people of Galveston, TX, finally received word that they had been freed – 2½ years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed. The proclamation read by Mayor Shari Cantor, recognizing and commemorating Juneteenth, also noted the previously untold history of West Hartford and the research into the those who were enslaved in town. “… we affirm their freedom from the chains of invisibility and bondage and forever recognize their agency, human rights, and contribution to our town, and fully condemn the actions of those individuals who chose to enslave other human beings.”
Earlier in the day, 14 more Witness Stones were dedicated, commemorating former West Hartford residents whose lives were part of the fabric of the town’s history, but about whom very little has been previously known.
Tatyanas Datil, a rising senior at Conard High School, was the chosen student speaker for the event, said this was the first time she had actually celebrated Juneteenth. Growing up in a multiracial household, she said it’s been a great opportunity to connect with her African heritage.
“What Juneteenth does for everyone is it raises awareness and it shines a light,” Datil said. “It shines a light on how far the African American community has come, from slave ships to leadership. … It also shines a light on how much needs to be done with equality and access to opportunity.” As one of the few Black softball pitchers in the state, and one of the few Black students in her AP classes, she said she sees firsthand the need to do better.
“Juneteenth is currently only a federal holiday, it’s not a national holiday. The difference is conveniently not everyone would get this day off from work or school to celebrate and honor this monumental day,” Datil said, although she noted that celebrating the holiday makes her feel she is part of something “bigger than myself” and allows her to shine her own light.
State Rep. Tammy Exum explained a bit about the origins of Juneteenth, which was first celebrated in 1866 – the year after those last enslaved individuals were freed. “I am so grateful that we are taking this opportunity to talk about for few minutes what Juneteenth really is,” Exum said. So many people really don’t know much about the holiday.
Although it had been nearly 2½ years since the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, in June 1865 there were still 250,000 enslaved people in the state of Texas who did not know they had been freed. That’s when Union General Gordon Granger and 2,000 troops went to Galveston, TX, and issued an order to the enslavers ordering freedom for those working on the plantations.
“They told the enslaved, ‘You are free,’ and I cannot even matter how that felt,” and if they decided to stay, they needed to be paid wages as employees, she said.
“The first Juneteenth took place one year later,” Exum said. “That is when the families who could got together got together and started to celebrate their freedom, and it was something like you’re seeing today. You’re hearing messages, prayers, there was singing, there was dancing, there was jubilation. There was remembrance, and that is what Juneteenth is.”
Exum also shared the story of Opal Lee, now 95, who at the age of 89 began campaigning to make Juneteenth a national holiday, walked all the way from Forth Worth, TX to Washington, DC, and gathered 1.5 million signatures. And she was at the side of President Joe Biden when he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act in June 2021.
“I was so grateful to be in the chamber this year when this legislation came to Connecticut,” making Juneteenth a state holiday. “That is monumental,” Exum said.
“I challenge you to go and learn more, because while we’re celebrating it please lean in and understand the background, the history, the story behind Juneteenth. And that is just a small part of our history,” a history we all need to learn. “There’s no shame in knowing it, there’s shame in not knowing it,” Exum said.
State Rep. Stephanie Thomas, who is currently a candidate for Secretary of the State, said she often thinks of those who were enslaved, who were waiting to be liberated. While Juneteenth is a celebration, “it’s also bittersweet as I think of all those people, then and now, when those long ago slaves thought about freedom, they probably never guessed that over 150 years later their descendants would still be suffering.”
She told the crowd that she was so happy to push that green button vote in favor of Juneteenth as a state holiday, and is happy to celebrate what has been accomplished. However, she noted, “Until we know our history we are destined to repeat it,” she said.
“I want us to celebrate, but after the celebration, I hope we’ll all remember the broader meaning of Juneteenth. I hope we will all work to bring true freedom to every man, woman, and child in this great, great, country, through our personal actions, through the ballot box, with love, never with hate,” Thomas said.
“We honor our ancestors who came before us – the ones we know and the ones we don’t,” said Mellissa Craig, one of the members of Friendz of World Music who engaged the audience as she poured water from one vessel into another, symbolically honoring the libations of life.
— We-Ha.Com (@WeHartford) June 19, 2022
West Hartford’s Juneteenth celebration also included a heartfelt and touching a cappella singing of the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice,” by Conard rising senior Kayla Reszinsky, and musical performances by Lil Skitx as well as several other vocal and dance groups.
Town Council member Adrienne Billings-Smith led the committee that organized West Hartford’s Juneteenth celebration.
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