Story By John Murray
Ocean swells barreled through Long Island Sound and rhythmically lifted the dock as Governor Ned Lamont signed historic legislation declaring Juneteenth an official state holiday, making Connecticut the 5th state in America to do so.
The scene was out of a movie: bright sun, blue skies, blaring horns of passing ferries on the Thames River, blaring horns alerting New London a train was in route to Boston or New York, and a replica of the slave ship Amistad as a backdrop.
State Representative Anthony Nolan of New London was a leader in the legislative fight to make Juneteenth a state holiday.
State Representative Anthony Nolan of New London.
“We fought hard for this legislation this year,” Nolan said. “We did have a little back and forth, but we were able to express our concerns and the importance of why we believe that it is necessary for us to have this day as a holiday.”
It was Nolan’s idea to have the official bill signing in the shadow of the Amistad, a sailing sloop that 183 years ago represented both oppression and freedom to a group of Africans from Serra Leone.
In 1839 Portuguese slave hunters abducted Africans from Sierra Leone and shipped them to Havana, Cuba, which was then a center for the slave trade. 53 Africans were purchased in Havana and brought aboard the Cuban schooner Amistad to ship them onward to a Caribbean plantation. The slaves had other ideas and seized the ship and killed the captain and ordered the ship to sail back to the west coast of Africa.
Djimon Hounson portrayed the leader of a slave rebellion in the 1997 movie, “Amistad.”
The ship navigated by the two Spanish plantation owners sailed north instead of west and was seized by a U.S. ship off the coast of Long Island and brought into New London harbor. The slaves were initially imprisoned and charged with murder, and the plantation owners set free.
A group of Connecticut abolitionists fought for the Africans freedom and the case wound its way all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where former U.S. President John Quincy Adams successfully argued they should be freed. In one of the first civil rights cases in American history, 35 survivors were successfully returned to Serra Leone.
The dramatic story of the Amistad rebellion was made into an award-winning movie in 1997 director by Steven Speilberg. Anthony Hopkins won an Academy Award for his role.
Lt. Governor Susan Bysiewicz was the master of ceremony of the event on June 10th in New London.
“The Amistad, which is docked behind us today, is a testament to the birthright of humanity and dignity,” Bysiewicz said. “It was here in New London, Connecticut, that falsely enslaved passengers were given their freedom.”
Bysiewicz told the gathering of 100 attendees, many from the State Legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, that elected officials we’re in New London to recognize the trauma of the African American community.
“This is a start in a small way to correct the wrongs of our past,” Bysiewicz said. “It’s important that we seek to redress the terrible legacy of slavery. And today, we’re one step closer to changing the course of our history.”
The Amistad was a powerful backdrop, but the main event was the creation of a new state holiday, Juneteenth, inspired by events in Galveston, Texas on June 19th, 1865, when a group of slaves first learned they were free, two months after the end of the Civil war.
The Connecticut state holiday goes into affect on June 19th, 2023
The freed slaves broke out in celebration on June 19th, 1865, and they continued to mark that day in Galveston as Emancipation Day. The celebration began to spread across America, and the world, and Juneteenth is now recognized as a federal holiday, and a state holiday in New York, Massachusetts, Texas, Virginia, and now Connecticut.
Governor Ned Lamont said although the slaves found out they free in Galveston on June 19th, 1865, the struggle for true emancipation continues through today.
“After Juneteenth we had Jim Crow and then we had the civil rights movement,” Lamont said. “Every day is a struggle. Every day is a struggle for our country to form a more perfect union, where everybody is welcome, and everybody has the opportunity to live up to their highest ideals and dreams.”
Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont touring the Amistad in New London, CT.
Lamont said he is proud of the role Connecticut has played in the civil rights movement. “I’d like to think that Connecticut has played a real role going from the Amistad to Martin Luther King when he was working in a field in Salisbury, and what that meant to him in terms of what a more welcoming state and region could be.”
Lt. Governor Bysiewicz said Juneteenth is a day that many of citizens realized they were no longer considered three-fifths of a person.
“Juneteenth is a day of joy, of collective celebration, self-determination, and perseverance,” Bysiewicz said.
Educating the public about the meaning of Juneteenth is a daunting task, and many state residents still have no idea what it symbolizes – the end of slavery in America.
Olivia Campbell is a cabinet member in the 2022 Connecticut Kid Governor’s administration. She said most people her age are aware of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month, but not Juneteenth.
Olivia Campbell of New London, Connecticut.
“It is imperative that my generation recognize the significance of this day,” Campbell said. “It is much more than a day off. It is set aside to commemorate the freedom of African American people.”
Historian Sarah Cheney of Norwich, CT, said her grandmother was born to free saves and had died in New London in 1968.
“We need to teach our children the meaning of holidays,” Cheney said. “We should know what Juneteenth is about and the reason for this holiday.”
Cheney implored Americans to work together and learn that differences don’t make us different.
“Differences unite us because you wouldn’t want to walk down the street and see everybody that looks like you,” Cheney said. “We want to be different. We want to encourage differences and we want to know about the differences, and we need to know about each other’s heritage.”
African drums (above) and conch shells (cover photograph) were part of the ceremony.
State Representative Geraldo Reyes Jr. of Waterbury is the Chairman of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus in the State Legislature. Reyes thanked his many colleagues who championed Juneteenth as a state holiday.
“I hadn’t heard of Juneteenth until five or six years ago,” Reyes said. “We need to begin teaching our children at the earliest possible age about our history and our cultural heritage. Juneteenth wasn’t in any history book taught to me, and this is why I think making this a state holiday is so important for Connecticut. Education is the key.” •
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