Jubilee Parkin Progress

Castle’s vision is to transform a blighted courtyard into a beautiful community space that celebrates resilience.

About the Project

Phase 1 — Landmark Historic Mural

In the months leading up to Castle Church’s opening on June 9, 2019, we began envisioning the beautification of an unused courtyard adjacent to the former bank that we renovated and now occupy. To spark the transformation, we decided to start with a mural.

Next Day Mercy, a race and justice initiative of Castle, identified Sarah Harris Fayerweather and James Lindsey Smith, two notable black history figures in Norwich, as the subjects of the landmark mural and an accompanying video.

Phase 2 — Park Development

The goals of the park are to strengthen social ties, improve safety, attract visitors downtown, and celebrate the arts, music and culture while sparking a wider transformation of the city center. For Castle, it’s our way of loving our neighbors of all backgrounds and bringing joy to a city we are honored to serve.

Yale Urban Design Workshop will design the space with city and community collaboration in a process that will take place until spring of 2023. Funding and construction will follow.

To give, visit this page of our website.

The name of the park is based on this portion of Smith’s 1881 autobiography:

“I was then keeping shop in Chapman’s Block, on Franklin Square, when the proclamation of freedom was proclaimed; it sent a thrill of joy through every avenue of my soul. I exclaimed, ‘Glory to God, peace on earth, and good will to men,’ for the year of jubilee has come! His glorious Proclamation of Emancipation will stamp the first of January, 1863, as the day of days; the great day of jubilee to millions.”

— James L. Smith, autobiography, 1881

Forever Linked to Juneteenth

On June 18, 2022, approximately 150 people gathered on site for the “unveiling” of the mural on the south facade of the building at a key intersection in downtown Norwich. This is what we dreamed and prayed for — a powerful moment of healing and reconciliation along racial divides.

We were honored to be included in the Juneteenth events that weekend. Juneteenth, also known as Jubilee Day, is the day on June 19, 1865, that enslaved African Americans in Texas were told slavery had ended — two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed and two months after the Confederates surrendered to Union troops. It’s been celebrated by the black community ever since then but only just became a federal holiday in 2021.

Juneteenth & Norwich

In 1989, Norwich was the first city in Connecticut to celebrate the holiday — establishing a prophetic link to Juneteenth.

Norwich resident Ben Haith created the Juneteenth flag that is used nationally. He was honored at David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard the day before the unveiling.

In an emotionally charged debate two days before a team from Castle retraced the steps Smith took to escape slavery, the Connecticut House of Representatives voted to approve Juneteenth as a state holiday. The State Senate approved the bill the day before on May 3.

Castle launched Next Day Mercy on Juneteenth 2020, following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. The premise was drawn from the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan, who not only immediately helped the needs of an injured man of a different ethnicity who was found suffering in a public place — but he came back the next day to make things right. We believe healing takes time and work and people who, instead of walking by the hurting to advance their own personal or political agendas and theories, decide to act with compassion and empathy with those hurting right in front of them.

About the Artist

Acclaimed muralist Ben Keller’s passion is merging “vision with reality.” He enjoyed one of his early career starts as a teenager with a solo exhibit at the Wauregan Gallery across the street from the park and has done work based on sculptures at the Slater Memorial Museum at Norwich Free Academy. He became a full-time muralist and artist in 2018.

Keller was selected by RiseUP for Arts as a lead artist for racial justice murals statewide featuring Martin Luther King Jr. He created several beautiful murals in Willimantic, along with murals in Manchester, Hartford, Torrington, and New Haven, while continuing to expand his reach to places beyond Connecticut.

Follow him on instagram @benkellerct or visit www.benkellerart.com

About the Mural

Why James Lindsey Smith & Sarah Harris Fayerweather?

Smith and Fayerweather were contemporaries in the Jail Hill Neighborhood, which is directly behind the church and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They both embody the spirit of resilience and offer a more inclusive view of our city’s amazing history.

James Lindsey Smith escaped slavery in Virginia in 1838 before settling as a community leader, businessman and minister in Norwich. His 1881 autobiography is a true city treasure that we hold in high regard.  Smith described how he nearly quit. His two companions had to go on without him because a childhood accident that left him permanently injured in one leg meant he couldn’t keep up. But a voice told him to press on and if he got caught to let it be “heading toward freedom.”

Sarah Harris Fayerweather was the the first black student to request and gain attendance at Prudence Crandall’s school in Canterbury. She and others had to endure racial hostility and violence when the wealthy parents of her white peers objected to their attendance with lies that eventually stirred an attack by an angry mob.

Why recreate the photos?

The sketch of Smith and the low resolution photo of Fayerweather weren’t usable for this large size of the mural. So with expert input, we selected models with deeply meaningful connections to artistically represent both subjects. Rebecca Bayreuther Donohue, a historic costume consultant with the Dirty Blue Shirts, used a photograph in Smith’s 1881 autobiography and a historic photo of Fayerweather provided by the Prudence Crandall Museum to dress the models. The Cromwell Historical Society loaned the period clothing.

About the Models

Robenson Charlotin, a worship leader at Castle, is the model for James Lindsey Smith. Muralist El Mac is famous for doing outsized portraits of ordinary people, flipping on its head society’s notion of fame. That got us thinking it would be nice to feature someone right here in Norwich as the model for Smith. For us, Charlotin was an obvious choice.

His own story of resilience and his improbable journey to Norwich after being displaced by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, gave us an opportunity to celebrate another storyline — the contribution of our cherished immigrant community in the city and nationwide. And, in this case, with Robenson’s Haitian roots, and the fact that Sarah Harris Fayerweather’s grandfather was likely Haitian, it gives us a chance to celebrate our Haitian brothers and sisters.

Olivia Langford, the great-great-great-great niece of Sarah Harris Fayerweather, is Fayerweather’s model. The Harris Sisters Month committee at the Otis Library includes Dawn Langford, a Harris family descendant, who referred us to her daughter, Olivia. On her first visit to the courtyard for a video and photo session, the moment brought Olivia to tears as she took in the significance to her family.

She demonstrates history’s ongoing legacy. At the unveiling, Olivia said she was humbled by the mural and she honored both Smith and Fayerweather for representing “strength, resilience and bravery.”

“I truly hope we walk away from this moment knowing…we can do anything against all odds.”

Olivia Langford is the great-great-great-great niece of Sarah Harris Fayerweather. Using 19th century clothing courtesy of the Cromwell Historical Society and a photo courtesy of the Prudence Crandall Museum, Donohue transformed Langford to represent Fayerweather.

On Langford’s first visit to the courtyard for a video and photo session, the moment brought her to tears as she took in the significance to her family.

Retracing James Smith's Escape

From May 6-9, 2021, a team from Castle retraced Smith’s four-day journey on the 184th anniversary to the exact dates of his escape.

The purpose of “James Lindsey Smith — The Journey Toward Freedom,” was to feature Smith’s humanity and stir empathy for such struggles for freedom today as we prepared for the creation of the mural.

The approximated retracing using Smith’s very own words in his autobiography as our guide took us from Virginia, through Maryland and Delaware, and to Philadelphia, where he first found work.

This experience was captured on video to be forever linked to the mural of Smith. A QR code at the site of the coming mural will allow you to watch the our journey and see how it ties into the story of Jubilee Park.

Thank you to the Norwich Historical Society, Norwich branch of the NAACP, City Historian Dale Plummer, Otis Library and more for their support.

Giving & Donations

Click the icon above to donate! Thank you for your support.

“Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” Isaiah 58:12

Thank You to our Sponsors

Jubilee Premiere Sponsor — Backus Hospital

Landmark Mural Sponsor — Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut

Landmark Mural Sponsor — Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition

Resilience Champion — Sustainable CT

Resilience Champion — Global City Norwich

Resilience Champion — In loving memory of Bob Hall

Community Advocate — Timothy Bowles

Repairer Status — Assured Quality Healthcare