The Connecticut General Assembly finished their legislative session this week. On Wednesday, they voted 148-1 in favor of SB 350, a bill making Juneteenth a state holiday. It had passed in the state Senate a day earlier in a vote of 35-1.
Only one state representative, Gale Mastrofancesco, (R-80), representing Wolcott and Southington, voted against the bill, citing the cost of giving state workers a paid day off.
Many Black Democratic legislators shared impassioned remarks about what the potential holiday would symbolize.
It was on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, that the last enslaved Black people learned they had been freed. It had been over two years since President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and two months since the Confederacy had surrendered.
While Juneteenth has for a century and a half been a day of informal celebration and reflection, in recent years the day has grown in importance.
On June 17, 2021, Juneteenth became the eleventh holiday recognized by the federal government.
On Wednesday in Hartford, State Rep Anthony Nolan (D-39) representing New London, said Juneteenth represented the ways freedom for Black people had been delayed.
“If we delay this, it’s a smack in the face to Black folk,” Nolan said. “We deserve a holiday.”
Rep Bobby Gibson (D-15) representing Bloomfield and Windsor, urged his colleagues to pass the bill.
“This country was built on the hands of atrocities,” he said. “The fact that Juneteenth even exists is uncomfortable because we know the horrors of slavery that helped build this nation. If we don’t remember our past, we’re doomed to repeat it.”
State Rep Corey Paris (D-145) representing Stamford said his great great grandfather was born to slaves on a plantation in Arkansas.
“My great great grandfather, beaten. His father, killed. Family members sold from one plantation to the other, never understanding the true identity of their culture, of their existence,” he said. “There is no price that you can put on the lives lost, on the blood shed, on the history unknown.”
“This has never been a celebration of victory or an acceptance of what has happened in the past. It is a commemoration of progress,” Paris added.
Rep Robyn Porter (D-94) representing Hamden and New Haven, pushed back against talk of “costs” of a new holiday.
Instead she described, “what it cost us in collateral when it came to having our names, our religion, our entire being and social network dismantled and destroyed. What it cost us as mothers who birthed babies that were ripped from us and sold into slavery, what it cost us on the breeding plantations in this country where we were expected to make babies so they could go to work in the fields picking cotton and tobacco…”
“Slavery was a policy choice,” Porter continued. “It was done at the cost of many generations, and Black people are still paying a price for that to this day.”
Rep Porter said there remained “a ways to go.”
“A lot of Black people will tell you, scholars included, that we went from the plantations to the prisons,” she said. “In so many ways, the shackles are still on our feet, still remain around our necks.”
After the frank and passionate remarks about race, racism and the stain of slavery, Rep Kimberly Fiorello (R-149) representing Greenwich and part of Stamford, admonished the General Assembly for their “unhealthy” focus on race.
“It’s a holiday that’s for all people, of all skin tones,” Fiorello said of Juneteenth. “I hope we get to a point where in this body we can stop focusing on the race of people.”
“We talk about education for Black children,” she added. “There are white children who need help in education.”
“Since the time I have been here I have seen a focus on race that is unhealthy,” Fiorello continued. “We want equal laws: no special laws, no special treatment. Treat everyone equal.”
She said discussing Juneteenth was a chance to understand American history, and that the Founding Fathers made uncomfortable compromises when they framed the Constitution.
“They knew that slavery was wrong,” she said.
The backlash was swift.
Christine Palm (D-36) representing Chester, Haddam, Deep River and Essex, said she hadn’t intended to speak, and preferred to defer to her colleagues of color.
“However…when I hear repeated again the myth that the framers of the Constitution meant all men were created equal, I feel compelled to set the record straight.”
“The Three-Fifths compromise deemed that the ancestors of Anthony Nolan, Corey Paris, Robyn Porter and my colleagues who spoke were worth only three-fifths of what my ancestors were worth,” Palm said. “That is the fact of our history. It is unpleasant. It’s ugly. It’s true.”
The Three-Fifths Clause increased the political power of slave holding states because, until it was removed, it provided additional representation in the House of Representatives in slave states.
Rep Palm said the Three-Fifths compromise had nothing do with humanity.
“I’m sorry if this comes across as abrasive, but when they said ‘all men’ they meant white male landowners,” Palm said.
“As a person of Irish ancestry. I don’t believe Columbus Day is about me. Maybe St Patrick’s Day is. I grew up in West Hartford where I got Rosh Hashanah off. I wasn’t raised in the Jewish faith. So, yes I can celebrate Juneteenth. I can be happy for my colleagues. As an American, I can be proud of the progress we’ve made, but this holiday is not for me, nor should it be.”
Fiorello spoke again, saying she wanted to set the record straight about the Three-Fifths clause, which she said was a compromise “in favor towards freedom.”
“The wonderful thing about the debate that happened is that the slave holding states actually recognized what they claimed to be things that they owned – suddenly they wanted to count them as a full human being,” she said.
“How ironic that in that moment where they get political power they actually said, no no no these people are human beings, they count as human beings. And in that moment of compromise it was the anti-slave holders, the abolitionist states, that said, no, you do not get to count those people as full human beings when you enslave them.”
“Disparities do not come from discrimination,” Fiorello continued. “There are many reasons for disparities….We have to get out of this mindset that disparities mean discrimination.”
Rep Nolan from New London had the last word.
“I’m hearing some things that sit on the core of my heart,” Nolan said, his voice breaking.
“To hear people talk about disparity and discrimination, and say that it has nothing to do with racism, really tears at the heart of some of us who go through those disparities…”
“My aunts, my grandparents, my mother, were part of a time in history where they had to tolerate people touching their hair, trying to figure out if it’s real or fake, or having to deal with name calling and things that people felt were okay,” he said. “If you have not experienced the disparity, that’s okay, but you cannot say there is none.”
As each legislator cast their vote in favor of the bill, their name switched from white to green on an electronic board.
Rep Fiorello was the last state representative present to vote. She voted in favor of the bill, and her name, like the others, turned from white to green.
The final tally was 148 in favor, 1 opposed, and 2 not voting or absent.
Rep Mastrofancesco, who had been concerned about the cost to the state for the paid holiday, voted no.
To become law, Governor Lamont will need to sign off on the legislation.