NEW LONDON — Sarah Chaney was the story of this year’s Juneteenth celebration in New London. A matriarch and fixture of the Black community who fought to become the city’s first bank worker, Chaney died last May at the age of 88. That did not prevent the tribute already planned, including the unveiling of a plaque in her memory on the city’s Black heritage trail.

New London residents gathered Wednesday at the Plaza Parade under the sculpture of soldiers and sailors who fought in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. This commemoration of the 159th anniversary of slavery’s end, a state holiday in Connecticut since 2022, included an unveiling of three new markers on the city’s Black Heritage Trail, dances, singing, poems and speeches highlighting the Black community’s progress and challenges.

State Rep. Anthony Nolan addressed the gathering (CT Examiner)

State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, noted the support he received from Chaney when he began his political career as he presented the recognition to her grandsons, Cassius and Allen.

“Miss Cheney is the one who came to me about representation and about how we need to make sure that our community is represented,” Nolan said. “Speaking up for those that need you to speak for them, speaking up for the things that are going wrong and not being apologetic. That was something that I learned from Sarah.”

Following the event, a group of six neighbors took an abbreviated walking tour of the Black Heritage Trail. The first stop was outside the Church of the City, on State Street, where the Commercial Bank headquarters once stood. That was where Chaney applied for a job in the 1960s.

“Sarah Chaney was well-qualified. She was told that she got it. She quit her job in New York but when arrived here, the position was given to someone else,” said Tom Schuch, one of the researchers working on the Black Heritage Trail. “Before that, the only jobs that they allowed Black folks to have in the bank was as custodians.”

Chaney decided to fight. She met with Linwood Bland, the local leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and together they fought and won. She got the job.

“She’s a hero,” Schuch said. “A lot of these signs date back 100 years, but this one is living history.”

Another plaque added to the tour was that of Prescot Hamilton, the son of an enslaved man and a Native American woman, who made his mark as a church organ builder. The third was that of William and Celinda Harris Anderson.

A plaque on the city’s Black Heritage Trail (CT Examiner)

The Black Heritage Trail includes hotels where Black people could stay safely, the site where Friedrich Douglas gave a speech in 1848, and other places that are relevant to the history of the African-American community in the city. The goal is to rescue those stories, as many were not documented, according to Curtis Goodwin, former city councilman, founder of the Black Heritage Trail and organizer of the Juneteenth celebration.

“The new Black Heritage Trail documents over 300 years of untold, forgotten or neglected stories of the resilience of our Black figures who have come from New London and made achievements that have helped shape the world, not just our community,” Goodwin said in a phone interview before the celebration.

New London is the southeastern Connecticut city with the greatest percentage of Black residents, 17% of the population in 2022, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Nicole Thomas, a researcher with the Black Heritage Trail project, took the stage at Wednesday’s celebration wearing a T-shirt that read “Remembering My Ancestors.”

“When I think about the fact that I’m here today, I remind myself that I am the wildest dream of my ancestors and so are all of you,” Thomas said.

The celebration had a festive mood, both in speeches and performances by high school students and NIA Arts, a traditional African drumming group.

But there was also room for social criticism, through poetry in the voice of two young students, one of them, Arnell Peck, a student at The Williams School.

“Another Black man gunned down by police, / much like our ancestors were killed by their slave masters. / We are being treated the same way our ancestors were treated / in the 1800s while they were enslaved. Are we really free now?”

Curtis Goodwin speaks at the city’s Juneteenth celebration on Wednesday (CT Examiner)

Goodwin, in his speech at the event, also mentioned the current challenges facing the Black community and stressed the work they are doing to reconstruct history as an inspiration for the next generation.

“Black people are the only group of humans that I know who have consistently been enslaved, oppressed, racially targeted, and economically starved throughout history with no reparations. The average well-off Black family is around $40,000. This tour is a reminder that we are not done,” Goodwin said. “Documenting this history is everything. Inspiring our youth to be leaders and to be equipped with the skill sets necessary to thrive and not just survive. We know that history is written by the winners. And I refuse to lose.”