Celebrating Juneteenth In Downtown Waterbury

Hundreds or Waterbury residents marched through the streets of downtown to celebrate Juneteenth, a holiday to celebrate freedom from slavery for Black Americans.

 

Story and Photographs

By John Murray

 

   Juneteenth was celebrated with a joyful expression of Black culture by more than 300 marchers who filled downtown Waterbury with songs, poetry, dance, and with demands for equality and justice.

 

   The Juneteenth Unity Rally was organized by the Waterbury Strong Community Collective whose founders are Demetre Coles, Tyler McElrath, Dwayne Pittman, Jessica Ervin and Jalia West. They are young, they are proud, and they organized a positive expression of Black culture.

Heru Pratt of the Mapogo Tribe carried the Pan- African flag through the streets of downtown Waterbury.

The marchers were young and diverse and demanded justice for Black America.

Lt. Dan Ferrucci guided the marchers from the Silas Bronson Library to the Green to MLK Park and then to Waterbury City Hall.

Avery Luke of Waterbury gave a blistering speech demanding the removal of the Columbus statue from City Hall.

The Mapogo Tribe is a new business at 319 Willow Street focused on community outreach.

Onlookers were surprised by the energy of the marchers as they entered the Green.

Speeches, poetry, song and dance lit up the Green for 45 minutes.

Demetre Coles is one of the founders of the Waterbury Strong Community Collective.

Part of Juneteenth is celebrating Black culture, including current song and dance.

 

   Reverend Rodney Wade addressed the group before they marched from the Silas Bronson Library to the Green.

 

   “Black, is in fact, beautiful,” Reverend Wade said through a bullhorn. He told the marchers that this is their time, and their turn, to make a difference.

 

   “America is not a melting pot but more like a fruit salad, “ Wade said. “We‘re all different and our differences make us special. When we come together it makes us better. I don’t have to fit in. I can be Black and proud.”

 

   Wade told the crowd that Blacks in America are not yet free, and encouraged the youth to keep on pushing. “All lives will not matter until all Black lives matter,” he said.

 

Ryan Hendricks performing STP, a spoken word poem encouraging the public to video all police encounters.

 

Ryan Hendricks is a spoken word artist from Waterbury and performed STP in the middle of a large circle of marchers on the Green.

 

“How do citizens like myself, that grow up in places that’s bad for our health

 

With sidewalks that are the canvases of white chalk and yellow tape,

 

And hooptie cars that have been the shelter for many scars and demolished faith, protect ourselves from invasion?

 

How do we protect ourselves from persuasion?

 

How do we protect ourselves from these barrels that’s pointed at our melanated skulls for simply being who we are? Or living in these trenches, where there’s no white picket fences, just sex money and murder.

 

How do we the people protect ourselves from these knees that’s causing us to plead, I can’t breathe?

 

I say, shoot the police.

 

I say pull out those iPhones and document every right and wrong. Show the people their motives. Show the people their slogans. We want accountability. It isn’t to educate, protect and serve. It’s manipulate and protect their word.”

 

   Several other speakers addressed the crowd on the Green, and there was plenty of song and dance, including the singing of the Negro National Anthem. Anyone who knew the words was encouraged to sing, and the handful of elders in the crowd carried the moment while the next generation stood proudly with fists in the air.

 

Heru Pratt was a prominent part of the march as he carried a huge Pan-African flag and chanted and spoke several times to the crowd through a bullhorn. The Pan-African flag was created by Marcus Garvey 100 years ago and is red, black and green.

 

“The red is for the blood of our people that was shed,” Pratt said, “Black is the color of the people, and green is for the color of our land back in Africa.”

Heru Pratt saluting the Juneteenth crowd on the Green.

 

Pratt and nine friends have created a business at 319 Willow Street called the Mapogo Tribe, a community outreach effort to lift up their neighborhood. On June 30th the Mapogo Tribe is launching “Operation Clean Your Street”, and will be running many more programs in the future.

 

The crowd was youthful and fully engaged by the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping across America.

 

Demetre Coles spoke at the MLK Jr. Park in the North End and said he and many in the Juneteenth marchers had participated in a rally for racial justice on May 31st in downtown Waterbury. Coles criticized the media and the police for describing portions of the march as violent. “They control the narrative,” Coles said. “We must stand together.”

 

Speeches at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in the North End of Waterbury.

Listening to speakers in MLK Park.

Marching in America has taken on renewed vigor following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. A new generation has awakened to the power of marching and demanding justice and equality.

Marching up Bank Street, the economic center of downtown Waterbury.

All along the march the Waterbury PD blocked intersections to create fluid movement through the streets.

Dementre Coles, left, and Tyler McElrath, middle, marching along Grand Street towards City Hall.

The marchers received enthusiastic responses from pedestrians along the route.

Ryan Hendricks performed another spoken word poem on teh steps of City Hall.

 

Back on the steps of Waterbury City Hall there were more speeches and Ryan Hendricks performed another poem about the beauty of Black women, and Avery Luke uncorked a powerful speech about Christopher Columbus and the need to remove the statue in front of City Hall.

 

“I was taught in school that Columbus was a great man,” Luke said. “As I grew older I learned that he was a mass murderer, a thief, a slave trader, a sex trafficker, and a rapist.”

The group demanded the removal of the Columbus statue in front of City Hall. While many Italian-Americans view Columbus with cultural pride, to most Black and Brown residents of the city the statue represents a granite whipping post of white supremacy and oppression. The arrival of Columbus into the Caribbean triggered a pandemic that killed millions of indigenous Taino, and within decades directly led to the West African slave trade.

Avery Luke demanded the removal of the Columbus statue from public property.

 

   Luke told the crowd that there were five million Taino living in the Caribbean when Columbus arrived, and after his exploits – and a pandemic swept through the indigenous population - there were 100,000 Taino left.

 

   “What message are we sending to our children if we continue to honor Columbus and his malicious acts,” Luke said. “Do we leave it to the children to discover the truth? Columbus is not a hero. How can you discover a place that already has millions of inhabitants?”

 

  Luke ended by demanding that the Columbus statue be removed from City Hall and, “never be erected on public property again.”

 

   Waterbury Mayor Neil O'Leary announced last week during a four-hour Town Hall on WATR that the Columbus statue would remain in front of City Hall to honor the legacy of the Italian-American community in Waterbury, but opposition is mounting. In addition to the Juneteenth demand to remove the Columbus statue, Maribel Rodriguez launched a Change.org petition that has already collected 700 signatures to take the statue down.

 

   Other calls were made for Waterbury Career Academy senior Jackie Henry to be given her diploma (currently being withheld by Superintendent Verna Ruffin because Henry organized a small graduation ceremony on private property).

 

   The idea to create the Waterbury Strong Community Collective came to Tyler McElrath in early June. “There were a lot of individuals doing really positive things in Waterbury,” McElrath said, “but if we all came to the same table and put our resources together to work for the community, we’d be even stronger.”

 

   And in less than two weeks they organized the Juneteenth Rally in Waterbury. “There was a really big rally in Hartford,” McElrath said, “but we wanted to do something for Waterbury.”

 

   And they did.

 

   Now the group is looking to the future and setting goals. “We brought people together that are doing things and we’re aligning our goals and setting a vision.” McElrath said. “We’re going to meet every week and build a true collective that rallies around Black issues.”

 

   Two issues at the moment that the collective is working on are the 8 Can’t Wait police reform initiative with the Waterbury Police Department, and working to have the Christopher Columbus statue removed from public property in front of Waterbury City Hall.

 

   “We just started, but we want to build a collective that can be passed along,” McElrath said.

 

   When asked what was the difference between the Waterbury Strong Community Collective and the local chapter of the NAACP, McElrath said, “action.”

 

The 2020 Juneteenth holiday resonated with the youth of Waterbury and hundreds came out to march through the streets and celebrate Black culture and demand justice and equality.

 

 

What is Juneteenth?

   News traveled slowly to Galveston, Texas. Two months after the end of the Civil War, and two and half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves, the slaves in Galveston were unaware.

 

   The news arrived in Galveston on June 19th, 1865 and Black families came together in prayer and celebration. The following year they celebrated again on June 19th, and the year after, and the year after that. The annual Juneteenth Celebration in Galveston eventually spread to Houston and around the country. Now, 155 years later, Juneteenth is recognized in 46 states as a state holiday, and there is an ongoing effort to transform it into a national holiday. Some companies, including Nike, Twitter and the NFL give their employees a paid day off on Juneteenth.

 

   It has become a day to celebrate racial freedom and liberation. Juneteenth got its name by combining June and 19. It is also called Freedom Day or Emancipation Day.