Norwich – Friday’s June 19 ceremony mixed a mix of celebrations, national and local history lessons and serious elements, with speakers pledging to keep learning and trying to improve the country.
About 50 people of mixed races and ages gathered in David Ruggles Freedom Court outside City Hall on Friday morning to honor the Norwich resident who designed the national flag on June 19, to raise the flag and recognize recent works of art created by the fledgling Norwich Street Art Collective. The group showcased an 8-foot-tall three-panel structure, titled “Past, Present and Future,” depicting African-American experiences in the United States and beyond.
Erica Brannen, a member of the collective, pointed out that the “future” panel has a blackboard at the base, where children can draw their own pictures of their goals for the future. The structure was painted in recent days at the Sikh Art Gallery in Norwich. Brannen said the group hopes to find a location in Norwich to display the tower.
Ben Haith, who is black and 79 years old – “the same age as the President of the United States”, he reminds people – moved to Norwich in 2008. He was born in Stamford and lived in New York, Boston and elsewhere over the years; he is an army veteran and used to work in marketing, but is now retired. In Boston, he became active on the civil rights scene and realized that there was no flag to symbolize Juneteenth, the now state and national holiday marking the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when the last enslaved blacks in Galveston, Texas were told they were free.
Haith created the flag, a blue upper horizontal bar, a red lower bar, a white five-pointed star in the center surrounded by a jagged white circle. The flag first flew in Boston in 2000 and quickly became the national flag for Juneteenth.
Haith received the Daniel D. Jenkins II Memorial Award and a city proclamation on Friday for his work to have June 19 recognized as a national holiday and for the creation of the flag. Haith said he was honored to receive the award named after a noted police officer and community activist from Black Norwich. Haith said he has worked extensively with Boston police to try to reduce violence and crime at all levels.
As America grapples with systemic racism, Haith said Friday the nation must also recognize its “systemic criminal history,” which he says goes back to slavery as a criminal act. Violence flourished in the so-called Wild West, he said, and in organized crime, and it still flourishes today in domestic violence, youth street gangs and the growing number of mass shootings. mass.
“How did we get here?” Haith said. “How can people think about walking into a grocery store and getting shot and killed and how does that not only affect the community and the country, it affects the image of the country.”
Haith thanked Jenkins’ family members in attendance and expressed his support for the police who face “a tough job with the violence in this country.”
Ceremony host Lashawn Cunningham, president of the NAACP Juneteenth Committee, began Friday’s ceremony by urging schools to teach African American history as part of the regular curriculum beginning in lower grades. She said that for African Americans, slavery only goes back four or five generations.
“It’s a joyful celebration,” Cunningham said, “But I have to say that with our education system, I stand before you as a young leader in this community, not asking but demanding that African history American with American History be taught in our schools, not when you get to high school, not as an elective, like it was for me when I got to high school and had to choose whether I wanted or no do it, but it starts in primary school and you learn it.
Friday’s ceremony kicked off a two-day celebration of Juneteenth in Norwich. Events continue on Saturday with the 11 a.m. unveiling of the giant mural on the Broadway side wall of Castle Church at 4 Broadway, the first step in a plan to create Jubilee Park at the base of the mural. The artwork depicts James L. Smith, who escaped slavery in Virginia in 1838 and settled in Norwich as a successful businessman and author, and Sarah Harris Fayerweather, a 19th century abolitionist and activist civil rights in Norwich.
On Friday evening, the first Juneteenth Heroes and Sheroes awards were presented to Castle Church pastor Adam Bowles, local businessman Ashon Avent, Norwich Street Art Collective member Brannen, Janelle Posey-Green of DHW Athletics and to Tiara Waters, who organized an exhibition of Black-owned companies in February.
A Juneteenth Festival will take place from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday in the car park behind 241 Main St., co-sponsored by Global City Norwich.
At Friday’s ceremony, Pastor Bowles of Castle Church recounted highlights of a journey of five church members to retrace the path taken by Smith and two companions in 1838, fleeing the Virginia Plantation on foot and by boat to reach Philadelphia. Bowles read passages from Smith’s autobiography and said the group even discovered an old dirt road through the woods which Smith had likely walked on during his journey.
“You can learn a lot from walking in someone else’s shoes,” Bowles said. “You can learn when you listen and when you empathize, when you care about someone else’s dream and not just your own.”