On Wednesday evening, as Destiny Hamilton and her friend were driving through Bloomfield, they saw something that made them stop and pull over.
On the wall of the community center where she made countless childhood memories, giant images of President Barack Obama and Anika Rose were shining in the sunlight.
For Hamilton, Rose was not only an actress who voiced Disney’s first African-American princess, Tiana, in “The Princess and the Frog,” but also a woman who grew up in the same neighborhood and went to a school that she often passes by. Hamilton started taking photos with a smile on her face.
“It’s very empowering,” she said. “We can step out of the comfort zone to do more than what’s expected on us.”
Nearby, Andrew Brown and Harold Blanchard watched how artist Ryan Christenson, of North Haven, known as ARCY, turned the wall that was pure white just three days ago into a colorful artwork full of civil rights activists.
The mural is one of five to be formally unveiled on Saturday in recognition of Juneteenth, a day celebrating the end of slavery that President Joe Biden made a federal holiday on Thursday. The other murals are at the Mahoney Center in Manchester; a building at 42 Water St. in Torrington; the Noah Webster Library on South Main St. in West Hartford; and 350 Washington St. in New Haven. The project is part of MLK39: Racial Equity Mural Tour, led by RiseUP for Arts.
“By making Juneteenth a federal holiday, all Americans can feel the power of this day and learn from our history – and celebrate progress and grapple with the distance we’ve come (and) the distance we have to travel,” Biden said.
Blanchard thought of his aunt, Dr. Diane Clare-Kearney. Born and raised in Manchester, Kearney was also painted on another wall in Manchester, along with Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and Harriet Tubman, for her contribution to the community first as a teacher and now as the director of Manchester Adult and Continuing Education.
“She’s all about community,” Blanchard said. “(She is) somebody that’s selfless and willing to go the extra mile to make sure somebody is comfortable and feels accepted because that’s what she wants — everybody feels accepted.”
At first, the statewide year-long murals project wasn’t going to be this big. Then the painting of Martin Luther King Jr. was unveiled in Manchester this January.
“That first mural sparked so much positive feedback in the community of Manchester,” said Matt Conway, the director of RiseUP for Arts. “We need to take this message of light, of hope, of what Martin Luther King stood for, across the entire state.”
More than 250 donors and sponsors helped raise over $100,000 to start the mural tour. Local artists were chosen to paint civil rights activists that community members voted for.
“It definitely was influenced by all the racial unrest that was happening in 2020,” Conway said. “It was a response to that because 2020 highlighted all the work that still needs to be done.”
The unveiling on Saturday is open to the public and will feature singing, dancing and instrumental performances by local artists.
“One of the goals is to bring awareness to the history of civil rights in Connecticut, not just civil rights in the ’60s, but being able to highlight those heroes in our local towns that are fighting still for civil rights,” Conway said. “It’s to continue the dialogue in these communities around.”
Local activists who are included on the murals, such as Kearney, will join and give speeches. New murals will be unveiled throughout the year until next Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Yehyun joined CT Mirror in June 2020 as a photojournalist and a Report For America Corps Member. Her role at CT Mirror is to tell visual stories about the impact of public policy on individuals and communities in Connecticut. Prior to joining CT Mirror, Yehyun photographed community news in Victoria, Texas and was a photo and video intern at USA TODAY and at Acadia National Park in Maine. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Yehyun was born and raised in South Korea.