Juneteenth celebrated in Kennett Square
● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
Last Saturday, for the second year in a row, a town that acknowledges, honors, preserves and tells its history once again observed it.
The Juneteenth Celebration, held throughout Kennett Square on June 16, introduced visitors to the pioneers of the Underground Railroad movement in the Kennett Region that established the area as a “hotbed of abolition” that protested the cruelty of slavery and also provided escape routes for fugitive slaves who sought freedom.
Juneteenth, also known as Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day, is an American holiday that commemorates the June 19, 1865, announcement of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. state of Texas, and the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans throughout the former Confederacy of the southern United States. It is recognized as a state holiday or special day of observance in 45 states.
A pop-up museum, held at the Bethel A.M.E. Church on Linden Street, was created and conducted by members of the Kennett Underground Railroad Center, who provided an oral history of the movement that included introductions to free African Americans, Quakers and other townspeople who led the abolitionist movement in the Kennett area, such as Bartholomew Fussell, Lucretia Mott, John and Hannah Cox, Eusebius Bernard and William Still.
The museum highlighted a full-day agenda that also included a screening of the film, “Whispers of Angels” at the Kennett Library; a Study Buddies community reading that featured guest readers from the Kennett Police Department, La Communidad Hispana and ACOLA; informal discussions with local historian Chris Densmore; a performance by Folkloric Heritage; and walking tours that offered an oral history written by local historian and business owner Lynn Sinclair.
The Kennett Square area, those who went on the tour found, served as one of the nation's most important centers of abolitionist efforts. On Aug. 4, 1860, a large congregation of African-Americans celebrated the 26th anniversary of the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 with a dinner at the Kennett Hotel, where the LaVerona restaurant currently stands.
In 1844, near the site of E & H Appliance Service, Quaker brothers Samuel and Morton Pennock set up a foundry to build farming tools that were used by those seeking freedom.
In 1865, the 40 Hope Masonic Lodge was established by African Americans in the Kennett area, and built in 1895.
The tour also told the story of Dr. Isaac Johnson, a prominent Kennett doctor, who was called to the home of James H. Walker, a free black man who lived on South Union Street, in 1852. There, Johnson found a fugitive slave who had badly injured his foot after jumping from a train to avoid capture in Wilmington. The slave was hidden in the Walker home for several weeks, and soon after he was attended to by Johnson, he left the Kennett area and eventually settled in Boston.
Years after the Civil War, a well-dressed black man walked into Dr. Johnson's office and identified himself as the slave that Johnson had attended that night in 1852. His name was Walker Hayes Johnson, in honor of three men who had helped him.
Ginna Goodall, who organized the first two Juneteenth events in Kennett Square last year, said that they were intended more to inform than to celebrate.
“Last year, there were so few people who had any understanding of what Juneteenth actually was, so we referred to it as an awareness rising,” Goodall said. “We look at these events as something that we can hang our hat on in order to say, 'Let's talk about all of the things that did happen here.' There were a lot of good things that came out of these efforts, and there were so many key stories that came from it.”
Goodall gave credit to Kennett Underground Railroad Center volunteer Ann-Louise Jeffery for expanding the event this year.
“I am the mother of four children, and we live right here in the borough,” said Jeffery, who was accompanied by her children at the event. “I've always been intrigued by this aspect of our history, and as I started to understand more and more about the heroic efforts of Quakers and African Americans and the network that came together to help fugitives find freedom, it became a compelling narrative to me. I felt like I wanted to help in any way I could to bring organizations together who care about this legacy and heritage in our area, and bring it to the mainstream, in order to appreciate the richness of what we have here, and do it collaboratively.
“Through friends and friends of friends, the word spread, and it became an amazing thing to watch these groups say that they want to be a part of this.”
The Juneteenth celebration was sponsored by the Bethel A.M.E. Church, Historic Kennett Square, the Kennett Underground Railroad Center, the New Garden Memorial UAME, the Joseph & Sarah Carter Community Development Corporation's Study Buddies Program, the Kennett Library and the Martin Luther King, CommUNITY of the Greater Kennett Area.
To learn more about the Kennett Underground Railroad Center, visit www.kennettundergroundrr.org.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.