WESTERLY — From a concert with Connecticut’s first African-American state troubadour to lectures and free shuttles for story walks, there are plenty of opportunities available to celebrate Juneteenth in the area this year. Juneteenth celebrations begin this Saturday in New London, when the New London community holds its annual Juneteenth Remembrance and Celebration at the Hempsted Houses.
Juneteenth, which commemorates the day (June 19, 1865) the last enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas were told of their freedom, was more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Proclamation of emancipation on January 1, 1863, declaring all enslaved persons in the United States free.
Juneteenth has been observed increasingly in recent years, with celebrations across the country and locally, particularly at Westerly Library & Wilcox Park, where members of the Westerly Anti-Racism Coalition have collaborated on celebration programming.
Juneteenth will be celebrated in Westerly at the Westerly Library & Wilcox Park starting Wednesday when teens in grades 7-12 are invited to make posters and learn about Juneteenth in the teen space from 4-5 p.m. From June 16 to June 20, library patrons can also take part in the self-guided Juneteenth Storywalk, featuring “Opal Lee and What it Means to be Free: The True Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth”, a new book by Alice Faye Duncan with illustrations by Keturah A. Bobo. On June 18, some of the founders of the Coalition Against Racism will share information about Juneteenth from 10 a.m. to noon in Wilcox Park near the Story Garden.
“Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free” tells the true story of black activist Opal Lee and her vision of Juneteenth as a holiday for all. The book, according to its publisher, “celebrates black joy and inspires children to see their dreams come true.”
Saturday’s event in New London – a free celebration presented by Connecticut Landmarks in partnership with the New London NAACP – will feature special guest speakers, dignitaries, vendors and activities for all ages. The recently launched Black Heritage Trail, celebrating three centuries of strength, resilience and achievement for Black people in New London, will be open and a free community shuttle service will operate from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The shuttle will run between the Hempstead Houses, the Shaw Mansion, the US Custom House Maritime Museum, the Thames River Heritage Park hosting the Amistad schooner and water taxi rides, the New London Old Town Mill and the Lyman Allyn Art Museum.
At Groton, Juneteenth will be celebrated with a musical performance by singer Nekita Waller, Connecticut’s first African-American state troubadour. Waller’s repertoire brings a mix of original music and works by Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Tower to Power. She performs throughout the region, bringing a mix of pop, Motown, soul, jazz and classic rock favorites mixed with her original music. Waller’s diverse musical journey has taken her from choirs, musical theatre, the Hartt School of Music and Gospel in Church to mentoring and performing with numerous independent artists. She’s shared the stage with greats like BB King, Ruben Studdard and Dianne Reeves.
Waller, who lives in Middlebury, will perform at several June 19 celebrations, she said.
“I will go from Hebron to Groton and from Simsbury to Windsor to West Hartford,” Waller said, adding that she would be happy to perform at Westerly whenever invited.
Waller is to perform in the garden of the Groton Public Library, weather permitting. For more information on Waller, visit nekitawaller.com.
For more information on Juneteenth, visit https://www.westerlylibrary.org/juneteenth.