Published June 18, 2021

By Claire Bessette

Norwich — The Norwich NAACP has hosted a Juneteenth event since 1989, ranging from crowded waterfront festivals to 2020’s brief COVID-19 restricted ceremony.

On Friday, participants cheered the day's new status as a federal holiday.

“This is a day of jubilee!” the Rev. Jerry Davis started her invocation prayer. “That means we are happy. We are rejoicing, and we are glad!”

She thanked God and said: "We are moving forward. We are moving forward!”

The landmark federal legislation that passed swiftly this week in Congress and signed by President Joe Biden on Thursday makes Juneteenth a federal holiday. Speakers Friday repeatedly honored the late Jacqueline Owens, former president of the Norwich NAACP, who brought the previously unknown day to Norwich in 1989 in the first celebration in Connecticut.

Juneteenth, officially celebrated on June 19, marks the date in 1865 when Union troops brought news of freedom to former enslaved Blacks in Galveston, Texas, 2½ years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation that freed enslaved people in the rebellious Confederate states.

Friday’s ceremony was held in the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard, where a giant granite stone engraved with Lincoln's proclamation stands aside Norwich’s Freedom Bell, forged during 2012 Juneteenth and rung on Jan. 1, 2013, the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s proclamation.

“Norwich is the source of strength in the state of Connecticut for recognizing the importance of this holiday way, way back,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District. He said “lightning struck in a good way” in Washington, as lawmakers put aside the usual gridlock to pass the legislation with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Courtney presented an embossed copy of the bill to Norwich NAACP President Shiela Hayes. The copy is signed by sponsor Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.

As the ceremony celebrated the history of Juneteenth, speakers recognized current and upcoming efforts toward racial equity.

The Daniel Jenkins II Award was presented to Rose City United, a group of youths and adults that has been meeting monthly with city police to plan neighborhood beautification projects and community picnics and to improve police-community relations. Cara-Lynn Turner, a member of Rose City United and co-founder of the popular Night Flight Basketball league, received the individual award.