CT lawmakers pass Juneteenth holiday, but comments on slavery prompt backlash

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State Rep. Toni Walker, D- New Haven, responds to comments made by state Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, R-Greenwich, during a Wednesday debate over a bill to establish Juneteenth as a state holiday.

State Rep. Toni Walker, D- New Haven, responds to comments made by state Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, R-Greenwich, during a Wednesday debate over a bill to establish Juneteenth as a state holiday.

Julia Bergman / Hearst Connecticut Media Group

HARTFORD — Connecticut lawmakers voted to make Juneteenth an official state holiday on Wednesday, following a lengthy debate that inflamed passions over a conservative lawmaker’s remarks about slavery’s inclusion in the Constitution.

The June 19 holiday, which commemorates the date in 1865 when U.S. Army troops entered Galveston Bay and spread the news of emancipation to enslaved people in Texas, has been celebrated for more than 150 years, and is recognized as a paid holiday in five states, including New York and Texas.

The House passed legislation Wednesday to establish Juneteenth as the 13th state holiday by a vote of 148-1. The bill now heads to Lamont, who has said he is open to enshrining the holiday as a paid day off for state workers.

A spokesman for Lamont said on Wednesday that the governor’s office would review the bill and its associated costs.

During the nearly two-hour debate on the bill, several Black lawmakers rose to rebuke comments from state Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, R-Greenwich, during a discussion of the founding fathers’ attitudes toward slavery. Fiorello said she “sought to set the record straight” on the Three-Fifths Compromise — a section of the Constitution under which slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person — calling it a “compromise toward freedom” that was pushed by northern, free states.

Fiorello, who voted in support of the Juneteenth holiday bill, had earlier complained that “since the time I have been here, I have seen a focus on race that I think is unhealthy.”

Those comments prompted a succession of speakers, starting with Rep. Robyn Porter, D- New Haven, who pushed back on Fiorello’s comments.

“The fact that Black people — men, women and children — were not seen as whole human beings for the purposes of taxation and representation, that is what the Three-Fifths Compromise was rooted and grounded in,” Porter said, surrounded by several dozen of her Democratic colleagues.

“Us being recognized as whole human beings, I hope that is what this holiday will bring,” Porter said.

Connecticut has recognized Juneteenth as a commemorative holiday since 2003. A number of prominent companies in the state, including The Hartford and Stanley, Black and Decker, began observing the holiday with a day off for workers in recent years.

President Joe Biden signed legislation in 2021 establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

“This is something that for years Black folk have been trying to see emerge from just a commemorative day,” said state Rep. Anthony Nolan, D- New London. “Having a commemorative day is nice, but having a holiday in regard to some significant moments in Black history is just so important for Black people, and we don’t have that.”

The chairman of the Connecticut Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, state Rep. Geraldo Reyes, D- Waterbury, said emotions in the room were palpable as lawmakers — some of whom have pushed for unsuccessfully for recognition of the Juneteenth holiday in past sessions — saw their efforts come to fruition.

“Personally to be able to be on that dias, I was able to actually look and feel and look at the room, and honestly when the bill passed I almost hit the gavel with tears in my eyes,” Reyes said.

Despite the back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans on Wednesday, only one lawmaker — state Rep. Gale Mastrofransesco, R-Wolcott — voted against the bill after raising concerns about the estimated price tag of $1.8 million to $2.3 million to give state employees the day off.

In addition to the costs to the state, making Juneteenth a paid holiday would add extra overtime costs of less than $50,000 a year to municipalities, according to a fiscal analysis.

“It is out of control,” Mastrofransesco said, noting that most state employees already receive several weeks of vacation and sick days. “What will be next that will be paid for? We could come up with many holidays.”

The bill would treat Juneteenth as a non-premium state holiday, meaning that employees who work on that day would not be eligible for bonus pay such as they may receive on holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving. Banks and credit unions would remain closed, as they are for state holidays.

The state holiday would be celebrated on either June 19 or on the nearest Friday or Monday, if that day falls on a weekend.