(WFSB) – Next Saturday is Juneteenth.
It’s a holiday that started in Texas in 1865 when the last enslaved people were freed two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.
This year, many towns across the state are holding their own Juneteenth celebrations.
Thousands of people walk through the West Hartford green every year. It was named after an 18th Century enslaver, Timothy Goodman. With the green sitting in the middle of West Hartford, a symbol of the community, one activist decided it was time for a name change.
“I thought, why would we have the name of an enslaver on one of our pieces of property,” said Adrienne Billings-Smith.
Posted in the middle of this land on South Main Street is a sign that says, “Goodman Green.” It acknowledges Goodman, a settler and enslaver who owned more than 125 acres in what once was the “West Division of Hartford” during the 18th Century. It says he gave the parcel to the church.
“There’s nothing in it about him being an enslaver,” said Dr. Tracey Wilson, Town Historian.
Down the street at Old Center Cemetery, this is a row of bronze stones, engraved with Epitaphs that reveal somber lives.
One witness stone honors the man Goodman enslaved for life. His name was George.
“George was enslaved by Timothy Goodman, who was a big landowner in town,” Wilson said.
West Hartford Historian and former teacher Dr. Tracey Wilson leads the West Hartford Witness Stones Project. For three years, 8th grade students have been researching the lives of people enslaved in West Hartford by poring over primary documents.
They couldn’t find many intimate details about George. Primary documents point out that George was like “passed down” from Goodman to his son as part of a will.
Research also points to him being baptized in the Christian faith.
Students with the Witness Stones Project have discovered accounts of more than 73 enslaved people in West Hartford during the 18th and 19th centuries.
“The traditional account of slavery in New England is that people enslaved one or two people, and what we found is something quite different than that,” Wilson said.
President of West Hartford Concerned Parents of Color, Adrienne Billings-Smith, worked with several groups to hold the first Juneteenth ceremony in “Goodman Green” last year. She found out about Goodman’s past and rallied for change.
“I wanted to ensure that West Hartford was holding to its promise and its mission to be a diverse and welcoming town,” Billings-Smith said.
The First Church of Christ Congregational across the street owns the green. Billings-Smith worked with the church, town historians, and community members to rename it.
In January, it became Unity Green.
“We thought we could name it after anyone, right? We could name it after any famous person, but it wasn’t about the person, it was about the community,” Billings-Smith said.
This week’s Juneteenth celebration in West Hartford will be much different from last years. This year, they have DJs, performers, choirs, along with a lineup of contests and activities.
The town’s Juneteenth Committee is made up of community members and multiple organizations. Together, they worked to create a day-long celebration.
Eighth grade students will be sharing accounts about enslaved people like George, and dedicating several Witness Stones to those lives.
They’ll also be celebrating in a space that Billings-Smith says now truly belongs to everyone.
“We want to make sure it feels like a community event, what Juneteenth is supposed to be about. Freedom, and jubilation, and emancipation,” Billings-Smith said.
For a full list of Juneteenth events happening in the state, click here.