Column By Geraldo Reyes Jr.

Juneteenth is the oldest known commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. The day is also called “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day,” or “Emancipation Day.” We cannot understate the importance of Juneteenth. It is a celebration of resilience, culture and American history.

On May 4th the House of Representatives in the Connecticut Legislature voted 141-1 to make Juneteenth a legal holiday in the state. This came after an unexpected emotional debate on the final day of the 2022 legislative session. Although I couldn’t speak for or against the bill that day, I had a front row seat to history as I was acting as the Speaker of the House during the debate. I was able to feel the room and deeply listen to what my colleagues were expressing. When the bill passed, I hit the gavel with tears in my eyes,

The most moving testimony came from Toni Walker of New Haven. She shared a personal story that few in the chamber were aware of.

“I grew up as a child who went through the civil rights movement in the 1950s,” Walker said. “My dad was one of the first people to start voter registration in the south (North Carolina). One night my mother put me in a closet with my sisters because the Ku Klux Klan came to our home to intimidate everyone by threatening my family. They killed our dogs. They burnt crosses in our yard and told us to get the blank out of there. I was three years old.”

State Rep. Toni Walker shared past experiences that few colleagues were aware of.

At five years old Walker went to a Kresges department store and had to use the bathroom. “The only one there was the one that said whites only, and my mother just said, hold it,” Walker said. “I ran to the bathroom, but my mother grabbed me and gave me a whooping that I won’t forget. She didn’t want anything to happen to my life because I tried to use a bathroom. How far have we come? How are our families thriving? We need to understand and stop trying to explain it and trying to define it. We hurt.”

Walker hadn’t intended to speak but when she heard comments from State Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, a Republican from Greenwich, she was drawn back into the chamber and towards the microphone. Fiorello was in favor of the bill but said it was time to stop defining issues by race. She saw Juneteenth as an American story, not a Black story. Fiorello is a Korean immigrant, a Harvard graduate, and said it is time to stop viewing issues through the lens of race. She does not believe racial disparities exist in America.

Her comments drew a sharp response from Black lawmakers, especially from Toni Walker.

“When we walk down the street, and you see people who don’t look like me go to the other side of the street because they think that they’re going to get attacked,” Walker said. “We have to stop defining and we just have to love each other and talk about what it was like to go through life like you did. Disparities is in our homes, and our community faces this every single day. Jobs and methods are used to define and separate us so we will never achieve. We need to end this. We need to get up and celebrate every aspect of all of us. Juneteenth is one day that we want to have on the records as a celebration of independence from slavery.”

Legislators prayed with Toni Walker in the House Chamber after her emotional testimony.

State Rep. Corey Paris spoke elegantly about his grandfather and great grandfather and some of the trials and tribulations which they endured in this country.

“American history is Black history, and Black history is American history. One is not able to be present without the other,” Paris said. “My great-great grandfather was beaten; and his father was killed. Family members sold from one plantation to another, never understanding the true identity of their culture, of their existence. There is no price that you can put on the lives lost on the bloodshed, on the history unknown. And that is why Juneteenth is so important.”

Robyn Porter from New Haven spoke about the African American culture and the 400 years of abuse they’ve been put through.

“The shackles are still on our feet. The shackles still remain around our necks,” Porter said. “And I hope that we take an opportunity to be cognizant of that.”

Porter said the country needs to have difficult conversations for healing. She pointed out that retributions have never been paid and that the country owes more than a holiday.

Bobby Gibson is the vice-chairman of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus and is a teacher in Bloomfield. Gibson said that African American history is not comprehensively taught in high school, and he is a strong advocate that Black history, and Puerto Rican and Latino history continue to be expanded in our schools.

“It’s important for us all to know our history and have uncomfortable conversations,” Gibson said. “This building and this country were built on the hands of atrocities. The fact that Juneteenth even exists, is uncomfortable because we know the horrors of slavery that helped build this nation.”

Gibson rebutted the statements of State Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, a Republican from Wolcott who objected to a holiday that would mean another day off for state employees. She objected to the price tag and the possibility that other groups would vie for holidays.

“This holiday is more important than numbers,” Gibson said. “This holiday represents our country’s foundation and how this country was built.”

The sorrow, hard feelings, pain and joy all came out of so many speakers and was wrapped up by Majority Leader Jason Rojas of East Hartford, and Minority Leader Vincent Candelaria, in closing comments. Rojas spoke about the diversity of the state and the importance of recognizing that the country has made mistakes and the need to acknowledge those mistakes on the path to healing.

Candelaria stressed unity in embracing cultural differences and supporting the ideal that history needs be discussed openly.

State Rep. Geraldo Reyes Jr., right, conferred with Majority Leader Jason Rojas.

I agree that it’s imperative to learn about cultural roots to understand where we’ve been and where we would like to go. Sharing unique cultural traditions, as we’ve done in Waterbury with “The Gathering”, is the best teaching tool available. Let people taste different ethnic foods, listen to music from around the world, and watch colorful dancing from Brazil, Albania, Puerto Rico, Portugal, Ireland and the Philippines. The motto of The Gathering is “We all came from somewhere, now it’s time to come together.”

Easier said than done.

During the debate in Hartford, I was impressed with the full array of emotions expressed during the three-hour debate. It was with a sense of pride that I found myself presiding over the chamber during this historic and emotional debate in the House as I listened intently from the dais.

My emotions were swinging inside my body and swirled around my head as I listened to gut-wrenching comments and rebuttals. This is an experience that I’ll never forget, and it’s a moment that I don’t have to wonder where I was when Juneteenth became a state holiday in Connecticut.

I was standing at the dais, controlling the chamber, and in the end fighting back tears as I struck the gravel to close the debate. •

(State Representative Geraldo Reyes Jr. is the Chairman of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus in the State Legislature and represents downtown Waterbury and the South End. Reyes collaborates with The Waterbury Observer on special projects.).