Without prodding or plan, legislators glided to the corner of the state’s gilded-age House chamber, where a tired Black woman stood talking Wednesday about America’s original sin and its second day of independence — Juneteenth, a holiday not yet recognized in Connecticut.

Rep. Toni Walker, a child of the South and citizen of New Haven, shared childhood stories of hiding from the Ku Klux Klan, of pets killed and crosses burned in retribution for her father’s voter registration efforts, of the everyday indignities of denied access to a whites-only bathroom.

“How far have we come?” Walker asked, her voice neither plaintive nor angry. “How are our families thriving?”

There was no question how the debate about Senate Bill 350, which the Senate passed 35-1 the previous day, would end: The House would vote nearly unanimously (142-1) to designate Juneteenth Independence Day, the end of enslavement on June 19, 1865, as a legal holiday in Connecticut. 

The sole negative vote came from Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, who objected to a holiday that might eventually mean another day off for state employees.

But an anticipated moment of celebration on the session’s final day was souring. The debate had gone sideways, not unlike a holiday dinner where race is broached, turned by a what-did-they-just-say moment.

Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, R-Greenwich, a Korean immigrant and unabashed believer in the American experiment, enthusiastically embraced what Juneteenth symbolizes, promising her vote. But she put a gloss — a “whitewash,” a Black colleague said — on how America got past slavery and where it stands today on questions of race and opportunity.

Legislators gathered behind Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, in a show of support as she explained the significance of Juneteenth. Yehyun Kim

One after another, the Black lawmakers who spoke before Fiorello cast Juneteenth as serving multiple purposes. It marked the end of their ancestor’s status in the U.S. Constitution as three-fifths of a human being. It is a celebration of Black resilience and a reminder of the racial disparities that remain in educational and wealth attainment, how they fare in the courts and in the housing market.

“In so many ways, the shackles are still on our feet. The shackles still remain around our necks. And I hope that we take an opportunity to be cognizant of that,” said Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven.

The Black lawmakers spoke broadly but also personally.

“American history is Black history, and Black history is American history. One is not able to be present without the other,” said Rep. Corey Paris, D-Stamford. “My great-great grandfather beaten, his father killed. Family members sold from one plantation to another, never understanding the true identity of their culture, of their existence. There is no price that you can put on the lives lost, on the bloodshed, on the history unknown. And that is why Juneteenth is so important.”

Fiorello saw Juneteenth as an American story, not a Black one. She arrived in America as a 10-year-old and graduated from Harvard as a young adult, then settled in one of the nation’s wealthiest ZIP codes as a wife and mother. It is time, she said, to set aside the lens of race.

Juneteenth was for all Americans, a celebration of the nation’s inevitable arrival at equality and freedom, she said.

Fiorello spoke twice, the second time to contradict the Black lawmakers on their view of history and their opinion that racial disparities remain.

“Disparities do not come from discrimination. There are many reasons for disparities. And that is all that we all have to grapple with,” Fiorello said. “We have to stop, get out of this mindset that disparities mean discrimination.”

Unlike her Black colleagues, Fiorello also saw glimmers of America’s early promise in the compromise struck in 1787 over how to count slaves in the census that would apportion seats, and therefore political power, in the new House of Representatives.

Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, R-Greenwich, voted to designate Juneteenth as a holiday but clashed with Black lawmakers over racial history.

Southern slave states wanted to count each slave as a person for purposes of the census. Northern states objected, then consented to counting a slave as three-fifths of a person in the census.

“The three-fifths compromise is a compromise in favor towards freedom,” Fiorello said. “The wonderful thing about the debate that happened [in 1787] is that the slaveholding states actually recognize what they claimed to be things that they owned, suddenly, they wanted to count them as a full human being.”

Fiorello would say later she resists seeing issues through the construct of race.

Off the floor, House Speaker Matt Ritter was in his office with Walker, who was still fatigued from her job of presenting and defending a budget as the Appropriations co-chair. Ritter suggested Walker return to the floor.

 “You don’t want to end that debate feeling like even though you won the vote, you lost the debate,” Ritter said.

So Walker hurried to her desk in the corner, where Porter was speaking for a second time, challenging Fiorello’s understanding of the “The Three-Fifths Compromise.” 

Lawmakers had already started to gather in the corner, a silent show of support. Ritter returned to the dais to listen to Walker.

Walker said it was time to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, one that once was Black America’s off-the-books holiday. She learned of it from her father, who grew up in Texas. It was in Galveston, Texas where federal troops arrived in June of 1865, two years after emancipation, to free the last enslaved Americans.

“Juneteenth was one day that we want to have on the record as a celebration of independence from slavery,” Walker said.

She tread lightly on Fiorello’s insistence that disparities were disconnected from discrimination, while not ignoring it.

“Let’s honor it, wear it, talk about it and move on, so that we never have an issue where somebody is trying to define us for us,” Walker said. “We can define ourselves.”

By the time she finished, her colleagues lined the back and side of the chamber. When the vote was tallied, they came for hugs.

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Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.