Rep. Toni Walker talks about the meaning of Juneteenth Credit: Christine Stuart photo

Connecticut officials commemorated Friday the adoption of a new law establishing Juneteenth Independence Day as a state holiday marking the effective end of slavery in the United States on June 19, 1865.

The legislature voted nearly unanimously in May to observe as a state holiday, June 19th, the day when Union troops freed the nation’s last enslaved people in Galveston, Texas more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Officials including legislators, Black community leaders and a representative of the local NAACP chapter gathered at the New London City Pier to watch Gov. Ned Lamont conduct a ceremonial signing of the bill beneath the twin masts of the Amistad, a reproduction of the famous 19th century slave ship on which a group of captured Mende people revolted after being sold as slaves.

During the event, Lonnie Braxton, a former state prosecutor, read the 93-word proclamation read by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, which freed around 250,000 enslaved people in Texas where the federal rules outlawing slavery had gone ignored for more than two years. 

“It is because of these 93 words, recited at several Galveston locations on that fateful day in June over 156 years ago that we are here today as witnesses to signing into law Public Act 22-128 by Ned Lamont, the governor of the state of Connecticut, making Juneteenth not only the longest-running celebrated African American holiday but also a state of Connecticut holiday,” Braxton said.

Before signing the bill, Lamont said Juneteenth served as a reminder that freedom is a continuing struggle. 

“It reminds me of those who want to airbrush our history,” Lamont said. “It’s dangerous if you’re not willing to learn from our past and I think that’s what Juneteenth is all about.”

Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, said lawmakers, including the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, fought hard for the bill. 

“We know that this is just the first step and that we need to even do more especially with the inequality that we have with our education and with our health care,” Nolan said.

Passage of the bill included some “back and forth” before lawmakers sent it to the governor’s desk, Nolan said. The legislation was the subject of an emotional debate in the House of Representatives, which saw Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, recount stories of growing up in North Carolina where her family was harassed because her father had led voter registration efforts.  

“The Ku Klux Klan came to our home to intimidate everyone by threatening my family, my sisters and my mother and I. They killed our dogs. They burned crosses in our yards and told us to get the blank out of here and I was three years old,” Walker said during the floor debate.

Near the end of her testimony, Walker told other lawmakers it was important that “we love each other for being different because I don’t want everybody to be the same.”

Historian Sara Chaney struck a similar tone during her remarks at Friday’s bill-signing event. 

“We will have a better community, a better state, a better world if we work together and we learn that differences don’t make us different, it unites us because you wouldn’t want to walk down the street and look at everybody that looks like you,” Chaney said. “We want to encourage differences and we want to know about the differences and we need to know about each others’ heritage.”

Congress voted last year to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Connecticut’s new law goes into effect in October, meaning the first official observance of the state holiday will be on June 19, 2023.