Hartford — The Connecticut House of Representatives passed a bill establishing Juneteenth Independence Day as a legal holiday in the state.
The bill was passed 148-1 Wednesday, with two House members absent or not voting. The state Senate had passed the bill 35-1 on Tuesday. State Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, and Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, were the only people to vote against the bill in their respective chambers.
The governor’s office has indicated that Gov. Ned Lamont plans to review the bill but did not say Wednesday whether he would sign it.
Juneteenth on June 19 marks the day in 1865 when Union soldiers delivered the news to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, that they were freed — more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the Confederacy had surrendered.
State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, was one of many Black legislators who spoke in support of the bill.
“This is something that for years Black folk have been trying to see emerge from just a commemorative day,” he said. “Having a commemorative day is nice, but having a holiday in regards to some significant moments in Black history is just so important for Black people.”
Nolan and others responded to concerns from Mastrofrancesco, who pointed out that this would mean another paid holiday for state workers and they already have a lot of time off. Juneteenth is a federal holiday but Connecticut state workers do not automatically get a day off for it. The estimated value of a paid day off for Juneteenth is $1.8 million to $2.3 million.
“We worry about the cost of many things in this state, but when it comes to the people who vote for us, we’re deciding today if they’re worth giving a holiday to,” Nolan said, adding that people are going to remember how legislators voted on this bill.
A straightforward vote sparked a tense debate about history and racism on the House floor after Rep. Carly Fiorello, R-Greenwich, spoke about the founders of the Constitution and said the “people founding this country knew that slavery was wrong.” She also argued that “disparities do not come from discrimination.”
Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, pushed back, bringing up the three-fifths compromise, which was an agreement between northern and southern states that counted three-fifths of a state’s slave population for purposes of determining how many representatives the state would get in the U.S. House.
“I had no intention to rise and speak on this bill because I feel as though the important voices on it were those of my colleagues of color,” Palm said. “When I hear repeated once again the myth that the framers of the constitution meant all men are created equal … The three-fifths compromise deemed that the ancestors of Anthony Nolan, Corey Paris, Robyn Porter … were only three-fifths of what my ancestors were worth.”
Fiorello spoke again, calling the compromise “a compromise in favor toward freedom” and said “the wonderful thing about the debate” at the time was that slaveholding states wanted full recognition of Black people. But she omitted that southern states were aiming for full recognition in order to gain more nationwide electoral power and were not looking to fully recognize the humanity of Black people.
Fiorello’s comments caused an act of solidarity among Democrats as Black legislators looked to correct the record. Dozens of Democratic lawmakers stood behind Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, as she responded to Fiorello.
Porter said the compromise showed that “Black people, men, women and children, were not seen as whole individuals, whole human beings, for the purpose of taxation and representation.”
“There’s a difference between discrimination and racism” Porter continued. “We can all discriminate against something or someone. But racism is when you have the power to shut people down, economically, justice wise, health care.”
Nolan also spoke to address Fiorello’s comments.
“To hear people talk about disparities and discrimination and say that it has nothing to do with race — 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 OK,” Nolan said. “If you have not experienced the disparity, that’s OK. But you cannot say there is none.”
Fiorello ultimately voted for the bill.
Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, spoke from personal experience about when the Ku Klux Klan came to her home when she was a child in North Carolina because her father was leading a voting registration drive for Black people. She was again backed by dozens of lawmakers standing beside and behind her.
“They killed our dogs, burnt crosses in our yard, and told us to get … out of here,” Walker said. “I was 3 years old … So when we work toward these budgets and we look at equity versus disparity, let’s honor it, wear it, talk about it, so that we never have an issue where somebody is trying to define us for us.”
In responding to Mastrofrancesco’s comments about extending time off for state workers, Porter said talking about cost “reminded me of the cost that Black people paid as this country was built on our backs. What it cost us in collateral when it came to having our names, our religion, our entire being and social network dismantled and destroyed.”