Norwich marks Juneteenth 25th anniversary with festive dance and song

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Tue., Jun. 18, 2013
Hazel Christine Gregory (second from left) receives her NAACP Award from Norwich Chapter President Jacqueline Owens (in yellow). Gregory chairs the WINners Academy for young women of color, founded this spring in Norwich. Courtesy photo. - Contributed Photo

Days of intermittent rain and near-flooding turned into glorious sunshine for Norwich’s annual observance of Juneteenth, held June 15 at Howard Brown Park at the Norwich Harbor. The festival of freedom, spearheaded by the Norwich chapter of the NAACP, featured performances, vendors and the presentation of the chapter’s awards.

Juneteenth marks the belated announcement in Texas of the abolition of slavery. While the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, some communities in Texas didn’t get formal word until the arrival of Union Gen. Gordon Granger in Galveston on June 19, 1865. “It actually took two years for the information about the Emancipation Proclamation to get to the last isolated places in Texas,” said event co-chair Dianne Daniels. “It took two years for [the slaves there] to find out they were free.”

The date has long been marked by celebrations in the African-American community. The Norwich chapter of the NAACP instituted an observance in the city back in 1988.

The silver anniversary of the Rose City’s Juneteenth observance featured an array of vendors and performers, ranging from liturgical dance to singers to a native American jingle dance performed by Natasha Gambrell. With the Norwich harbor as her backdrop, she twirled and stamped in her colorful costume, adorned with embroidery and cone-shaped metal ornaments that turned her body into a musical instrument, jingling with every step.

Gambrell, a Norwich resident who is a student at Eastern Connecticut State University, said she’s been dancing since she was 8 and still competes at New England powwows. The jingle dance is not Pequot in origin, but is instead connected with western tribes. Even so, “it’s a healing dance, and right now we are really in need of healing,” she said, due to her tribe’s loss of federal recognition in 2006.

When Gabrell finished, the program went fast-forward to a different beat, as street dancers Mike Sanon and Marvin Bernadel took the stage. The pair, representing the youth group at Peniel Church, slithered and leaped across the pier to a hip-hop beat.

Other performers included poet Coree Shields, members of the 3D Dance Studio, liturgical dancers from Unique Praise Anointed Worship, singer Barron Williams, dancers from the First Haitian Baptist Church of Norwich, and singers and dancers from the International Family Worship Center of Norwich.

A group of young ladies from the WINners Academy staffed a bake sale tent stocked with cupcakes, brownies and mini pound cakes. Daniels explained that the Academy is a new program for the NAACP, established in April to meet the national organization’s challenge to focus on the needs of young girls of color. The Norwich chapter’s Women in NAACP (WIN) took on the project and now runs a Saturday program for girls aged 10 to 18.

“We talk about history and do exercise to keep ourselves healthy,” said Sanaa, 10, a member of WINners Academy. “Almost every single week we write out positive things we’ve done.” For her, that includes helping her friends and her siblings, and finishing her science fair project.

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