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Juneteenth bill moves to Lamont after emotional House debate

May 5, 2022 GMT

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Following an emotional debate over a new state holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States, Connecticut lawmakers approved legislation Wednesday night making it the latest state to officially recognize “Juneteenth”

Black legislators spoke about the racial intolerance they’ve seen in their lives and the importance of June 19th as a holiday to Black people. The bill passed in the House 148-1 after clearing the Senate 30-1 a day earlier, and now heads to Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk.

“Yes, this bill is about a holiday but it’s a lot more than that,” said Rep. Anthony Nolan, a Democrat from New London, who is Black. He said the legislation represents “freedom for Black people that has been delayed.”

Juneteenth became a federal holiday last summer — the first since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983.

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As in other states, Connecticut’s legislation honors the day in 1865 when enslaved Black people in Texas were freed with the arrival of federal troops. It’s the latest in a string of bills passed in recent years that attempt to address racial inequities, including a 2021 law that makes it illegal to discriminate against someone because of their hairstyle.

Some Black legislators appeared to take issue Wednesday with comments made by Republican Rep. Kimberly Fiorello of Greenwich, who raised concerns about the General Assembly’s “unhealthy” focus on race.

“We talk about education for Black children. There are white children that need help,” said Fiorello, who is of Asian descent. While Fiorello voted for the bill, calling it a “holiday for all people of all skin tones,” she said lawmakers “have to stop, get out of this mindset that disparities mean discrimination.”

Some Black legislators also appeared to take issue with Fiorello’s comments that the clause in the Constitution counting slaves as three-fifths of a person actually was a step toward ending slavery, an opinion voiced by Republicans in other states in recent years. Scholars interviewed by The Associated Press have said they see no evidence the constitutional provision was intended to end slavery.

Rep. Robyn Porter, a Democrat from New Haven who is Black, said she felt the need to correct the legislative record. She said the three-fifths compromise was the product of negotiations at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 about how to allot seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and how to dole out taxes based on population.

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“There was an ulterior motive. And the fact that Black people, men, women and children, were not seen as whole individuals, whole human beings, but three-fifths for the purpose of taxation and representation. That is what the three-fifths compromise was rooted and grounded in,” said Porter, as several dozen state legislators gathered behind her in support.

Porter said she hoped the holiday will help to recognize Black people as “whole people.”

The group of legislators later moved behind Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, who spoke about growing up as a child in the South during the civil rights movement of the 1950s. She recalled how her father was leading a voter registration drive and members of the KKK came to her home to threaten her family, burning crosses on her lawn and killing the family’s dogs.

“We hurt,” she said of Black people. “It is so important that we love each other for being different.”

Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, cast the lone “no” vote in the House on Wednesday. She called Juneteenth Independence Day “a wonderful thing” but didn’t believe it should be a state holiday, noting how state employees will have 16 paid holidays, in addition to sick, vacation and personal days, if Lamont signs the bill into law.

“I mean, what holiday will be next that will be paid for?” she asked. “We can come up with many holidays.”

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The story corrects spelling of Kimberly Fiorello’s name from Fiorella.