As West Hartford’s weekend of Juneteenth celebration concluded Sunday, members of the community gathered as the town green was officially renamed ‘Unity Green.’
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford’s second annual Juneteenth celebration, held over the weekend of June 19-20, 2021, was full of joy juxtaposed by serious messages and actions, with the observation culminating late Sunday morning as a crowd gathered for the rededication of the town’s green as Unity Green.
West Hartford’s town green – that narrow triangle of land that splits the northbound and southbound lanes of South Main Street just south of Farmington Avenue and is the longtime site of banners and public gatherings – had previously been named Goodman Green, in honor of Timothy Goodman, who deeded it to First Church, which in turn has leased the land to the town since 1924. Recent research into the town’s history conducted as part of the Witness Stones project brought to light the fact that, along with some of West Hartford’s other prominent families for whom roadways and buildings have been named, Goodman was, indeed, a slaveholder.
The town’s inaugural Juneteenth celebration, on June 19, 2020, was held on what was still called Goodman Green, but resident Adrienne Billings-Smith, founder and president of Concerned Parents of Color, realized the irony of celebrating Juneteenth in that particular spot.
She approached First Church, and worked with the church community over the course of several months, as they underwent a discovery and reflection. The congregation strongly supported the change, approving it by a vote on Nov, 29, 2020.
The dedication of Unity Green was celebrated Sunday during the church service, as Rev. Erica Wember Avena’s sermon (see PDF below) touched on the long history of the church, injustice, and the chance to create a legacy of change rather than just accepting that something is part of history.
“Adrienne Billings-Smith pointed out that there are people in this community who are stricken to know that the name of a slaveholder is reflected in our public space,” Avena said. “And I have heard her say that she is not asking us to move mountains. But if everyone could pick up and move one rock … the mountain of injustice will change shape entirely …”
At the dedication ceremony, Avena led a prayer. “We are mindful of the generations of people who have walked here before us, we honor their lives, we know something of their struggles. We are inheritors of their legacy …” she said. “As we rename this space today, we do so both with appreciation of what has come to us from the past, positive and good, and what we know of the past that has institutionalized oppression, even unto our very day.
“Let this be a turning point. Let us work together to welcome all, to respect each person’s humanity, to listen to the outsider, to honor the meek,” Avena said.
Barbara Lewis, First Church’s former historian, and a member of the Unity Green renaming committee, said the church began a period of discovery and reflection when asked by Billings-Smith about renaming the town green.
“We hope to better understand this history as more research provides a clearer picture,” she said, noting the research undertaken by Tracey Wilson, Liz Devine, and Denise deMello through the Witness Stones project. “We are so very grateful to Adrienne for engaging the congregation in this difficult conversation about acknowledging our past involvement with slavery.”
Unity Green will be a place to foster and embrace unity, for a much more just and inclusive future, Lewis said. “This is not the culmination of a one-and-done project, but the beginning of a collaborative effort.”
Billings-Smith said she worked with Geeno Gordon, vice president of Concerned Parents of Color, to brainstorm about the new name for the green. She said she’s so happy with the name chosen and approved by the congregation – a name that signifies “faith, activism, history, and leadership mean something. We partner together, we are all one in this work together.”
Carol Anderson Blanks, a member of West Hartford’s Town Council, thanked all who made Juneteenth possible.
“I’m standing here today on behalf of the mayor and Town Council … as we prepare to dedicate this green to the people of this town, we also memorialize the enslaved men, women, and children – men, women, and children treated as property and listed as assets … by others who claim to be owners human beings,” said Blanks.
“We gather here on this green to right a wrong of our town’s history.”
The Town Council’s job is to create policy, and although the community has come a long way, “we have a long road ahead of us,” Blanks said. “Each of us here today has the power to be a change agent,” she said, urging all to pledge to be an active participant in the fight against hate, racism, discrimination, and social injustice.
The ceremony ended with a singing of the first verse of Amazing Grace, a hymn Blanks said was written by a slave trader who later became an abolitionist. “Hypocrite or prophet? … The power to change is real, and we can do this together.”
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