Deacon Arthur Miller, childhood friend of Emmett Till, to speak

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Granby will celebrate the federal holiday of Juneteenth on Saturday, June 17, 3 to 9:30 p.m., (rain date is June 18) in Salmon Brook Park. The hope is that in addition to a great showing of Granby residents, families will come from far and wide to enjoy this event.

The Juneteenth committee has planned a day rich in music, entertainment, food and fun—while also providing ample opportunities for education and expanded awareness. As our much-anticipated speaker Deacon Arthur Miller says, a Juneteenth festival is an opportunity to “join together in community and come away with both our hearts and our minds expanded.”

A Catholic Deacon at St. Mary’s Church in Simsbury, Miller notes that he is the first and only African American Deacon in Connecticut, and one of the few in New England.

Miller was born in 1945 at Chicago’s Provident Hospital and Training School, the first African-American-owned hospital in the country. Miller’s mother was college educated— “truly a brilliant woman,” he says—and his father was a laborer and a milkman.

Miller spent the first half of his childhood on South Side of Chicago, and he enjoyed what he describes as a wonderful childhood in a predominantly Black community. “We had our own dentists, doctors, churches, attorneys, you name it,” he says. Miller and his two brothers benefitted from a high-quality education in the public schools. “Many African Americans were not allowed to have the jobs they were qualified for, and many of the smartest became teachers,” Miller explains. “So, these brilliant, highly educated people were my public-school teachers.”

When he was 10 years old, Miller’s childhood was abruptly altered. In August 1955, a neighborhood friend named Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi, for allegedly flirting with a White woman. Till was a classmate and very close friend of Miller’s older brother Warren. Miller describes how Emmett Till used to protect the smaller Warren from the bullies.

Only 14 years old, Till was visiting family in the small town of Money, Mississippi, where he visited a local grocery store. The proprietor was a married white woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham, who accused Till of whistling at her. Miller explains that Till had quite a profound stutter and sometimes he whistled when trying to speak. It’s not known what exactly transpired, but Till unwittingly crossed the line with a white woman, a deadly mistake in the Jim Crow-era South.

Later that evening, Till was abducted, tortured, lynched and tossed in the river by Donham’s husband and his half-brother. Adding insult to grievous injury, the all-white jury found the murderers not guilty and they were acquitted—and overnight, Till became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement.

“Prior to Emmett’s murder, I just didn’t know anything about the greater world around me…I knew I was a little Negro boy but I didn’t understand the ramifications of that fact. I had never needed to know, until that point. Now, with Emmett’s murder, our mother had to explain to us what it meant to be black in America.”

In 1957, with segregation slowly beginning to loosen up, Miller’s family moved from South Side Chicago to the neighborhood of Chatham, where their white neighbors were not consistently welcoming. He does not know if there were specific threats made, but he does recall his father cleaning his shotgun on the front porch for all to see.

The Millers were also not entirely welcome in their new integrated church, where the pastor told the congregation that he did not want black people in his church. Well, Miller’s mother not only continued to attend—she showed up at daily mass and sat in the first pew. This was one of many ways, Miller says, that his mother demonstrated for him an example of strength. Miller came to a realization that he and his family would have to “fight” to stay in the Catholic Church.

Not surprisingly, given the circumstances of his life and the example his mother set, Miller became involved in the civil rights movement and at the age of 17, was arrested during a peaceful street demonstration. This would not be the last time that Miller got into what he calls “Gospel Trouble.” He was arrested a second time in 2015 during a Black Lives Matter protest in Connecticut. As Miller told the St. Anthony Messenger in a 2021 interview, it’s important to get involved if you feel that something is amiss, and we can each find a way to do so that feels right to us. “If God were to give us an 11th commandment,” said Miller, “I believe it would read: Thou shall not be a bystander.”

In his early professional life, Miller was an executive for Aetna, which required him to move all around the country. When he decided the constant relocation was not right for his family, he opened an investment advisory company in New York. The family ultimately settled in Windsor, which he says has been a wonderful place to raise his children. Miller has been married to his wife Sandy for 51 years. They have four children and eight grandchildren.

Throughout his life, Miller says, God seemed to keep nudging him to become a spiritual leader. He first felt called to become a priest when he was a kid, but was deterred by the racist priest in his Illinois parish. Once his family settled in Connecticut and found a welcoming Afrocentric church, Miller began the journey to becoming a Deacon. His primary role, as he sees it, is as a servant to the people. “It is my calling to help people, to minister to them, and to love them, often at the most difficult times of their lives,” says Miller.

Earlier this month, Miller and his wife invited Hartford students to spend time in their orchard in Windsor, where the kids would help to harvest their fruit trees. “These kids need to see some of the beauty that they are not typically exposed to. It’s like a balm for the ugly stuff. This is a gesture of love, and doing these kinds of things give me hope.”

“Part of my message—and the message I will bring to Granby—is that love has incredible power to overcome hopelessness,” says Miller. “I’ve traveled all over the country because I want my history and what I’ve learned to be heard far and wide. I like the analogy of the generous farmer who scatters his seeds far and wide – because you never know where a seed is going to take root.”

While Granby, with its overwhelmingly white population, may not be the most obvious spot for a Juneteenth celebration, these are often the very best places to plant some seeds.