Voices, messages soar at Juneteenth celebration
By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
On June 19, a day that called for eventual thunderstorms and rain, the clouds above the historic Fussell House in Kennett Square parted long enough to welcome 100 visitors to “Juneteenth: Network to Freedom,” in honor of Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States, and the start of emancipation for African Americans.
The event was organized by 14-year-old Isabella Hanson, a sophomore at Kennett High School, who conceived of the idea as a way to honor the memory of George Floyd, an African American man who was killed on May 25 by Minneapolis, Minn. police officer Derek Chauvin, while three other officers stood idly by.
“We wanted to put on an event that wasn’t a riot or a protest, in order to tell everyone that black lives do matter and have a few speakers share their experiences and their beliefs,” Isabella said.
In planning the event two weeks ago, Isabella worked with her mother Sophia Hanson, the co-founder of The National Youth Foundation, after the foundation received a grant from the Gucci Changemakers Fund.
“[Gucci] said [to the foundation], ‘Here’s some extra funding, but you only have a really short time period to spend it,” Sophia said. “I replied, ‘But we are already working on the projects you have already given us support for.’ Isabella then told me, ‘I would like to honor George Floyd. Do you think I could organize a Juneteenth event?”
Also known as “The Pines,” the Fussell House was owned during the time of the Underground Railroad movement by Quaker physician and anti-slavery activist Dr. Bartholomew Fussell and his wife, Lydia. For a period of ten years, the house served as a refuge for more than 2,000 runaway slaves to find safety, shelter, food and clothing along their journey north to freedom.
On Jan. 20, 2016, the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors announced the township’s purchase of the 190-year-old home, and over the past four years, the township has engineered an extensive renovation of the iconic structure.
Following an opening performance of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” by Charlene Holloway, Sophia Hanson announced that the Fussell House is now one of 600 locations now recognized by the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom which -- through collaboration with local, state and federal entities and organizations and individuals -- honors, promotes and preserves the history of resistance to enslavement.
Gregory Wright of Gucci told the audience that of the hundreds of applicants for the Gucci Changemaker Fund received, “the National Youth Foundation stood out for us, as they were creating a dialogue that they were well ahead of their time in creating,” he said. “When we looked at that, we felt that it was something we not only wanted to participate in, but to look forward to further development that we can include ourselves in, in watching them grow.
“It’s a true testament to this women-led organization to see what they do every day and how they impact not only their local community, but the national environment that we are currently in.”
During his keynote address, the Rev. Kyle Boyer, the president of the West Chester chapter of the NAACP, pointed to the Fussell House behind him, and spoke about the differences between those slaves who sought their freedom during the time of the Underground Railroad and those in the modern African American community who seek freedom of another sort.
“Everything about the work that took place here would have had to stay underground – under cover, and secret and hushed,” Boyer began. “Runaway slaves coming from the South had to move undercover, so that bloodhounds wouldn’t sniff them out or hasten their capture or worse.
“At least 100,000 slaves per year were using the secret network to escape to freedom. They didn’t have the luxury of Instagram and Twitter and Facebook, and have the luxury of social media to plan a protest or a march at the courthouse and accomplish something…They had to move in silence. They had to hide their true identities and live secret lives.
“We have to remember that even when we have to move in silence, there’s always going to be some help underground, working to move the voices above ground. People who helped the salves find this metaphorical railroad, there were guides known as conductors at hiding places like this house behind us.”
Boyer described 2020 as an “earthquake,” the power of which has both exposed truths and elevated consciousness.
“It has exposed just how much white privilege is still a thing, and just how much privilege blinds some elements of our society and just how pervasive systemic racism is. But it has elevated the courage and the pride of individuals, the consciousness of people,” he said. “It has elevated the trust in the spirit and the power of black individuals who for so long felt like they had to keep so much of it underground.
“It has exposed so many evils and elevated so many goods,” Boyer added. “This year has taught us that we no longer have to keep our pride underground. Dr. Fussell hid slaves underground so that today, we can come above ground and proudly say that not only do black lives matter, but black literature matters, and black design matters and black spirits and black dreams and black hopes and black plans and black architects matter, so that together, we can stay above ground.”
Additional speakers included Kennett Township Manager Eden Ratliff, who provided a historical perspective of the Fussell House and its impact on the Underground Railroad Movement; Susan Fussell, a descendent of the Fussell family; Vanessa Briggs, the executive director of the Brandywine Health Foundation; and Dr. Richard Leff, chairman of the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors.
The preservation of the Fussell House, Leff said, “serves as a tangible reminder of the strengths of those enslaved African Americans who overcame enormous barriers to reach freedom, as well as to those with the courage to risk all they had to help the oppressed. “On this site over 150 years ago, people recognized that we are all equal and should be able to live in freedom,” Leff added. “Our hope is that those who see this house and hear its history will know what can be overcome when we are at our best and most noble selves, and work together for the elevation of everyone.”
Kennett Township Supervisor Scudder Stevens also acknowledged the significance of holding the event at the Fussell House.
“This is a very significant place because it is part of the Underground Railroad and one of the few buildings remaining in the region that has that history and quality and character,” he said. “It speaks to who we were and who we are and what we need to become. It’s a joy that after at least five years [of the township] working to take possession of this building and preserving it, that it is finally coming together in ways that incorporates the community and brings honor to all of us, in order to bring out the best of who we are.”
At the same time the Kennett Square event was concluding, several U.S. senators announced legislation to make Juneteenth a widely observed national holiday. Currently, the commemoration, which began as a Texas holiday in 1980, is now recognized by 47 states and the District of Columbia as a state holiday or observance and is marking its 155th anniversary this year.
While she agrees with the legislation, Sophia Hanson said there is still a long way to go to level the playing field of equality for African Americans.
“As a Black American, that’s one step toward progress, but I think coupled with making it a national holiday, there needs to be some actual grit behind it, in terms of more equality for blacks in America,” she said. “You look at the racial disparities in terms of school inequality, housing inequality. Even in philanthropy, 82 percent are run by white males. It’s been an uphill battle for us to be taken seriously as women of color.
“While I support it as a national holiday, after that, America still needs to come up with something substantive behind it, to help move the needle for African Americans.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Gucci Changemakers Fund supports social change by investing in community-based programs in cities across North America, through a $5 million fund will have a particular focus on building strong connections and opportunities within the African-American community and communities of color at-large. To learn more, visit https://changemakersus.gucci.com.
The National Youth Foundation is dedicated to promoting diversity, inclusion and gender equality while helping young students develop their literary skills through academic and team building projects. It collaborates with professional athletes from the National Football League and the National Basketball Association; administers the Student Book Scholars team writing contest; and visits cities and towns across the country to team with community centers and schools to host youth writing workshops, among many other initiatives. To learn more, visit www.nationalyouthfoundation.org.
The Kennett Underground Railroad Center (KURC) is a not-for-profit, all volunteer organization located in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, dedicated to telling the stories of Underground Railroad sites and participants in this area. To learn more, visit www.kennettundergroundrr.org.
The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, coordinated under the guidance of the National Park Service, demonstrates the significance of the Underground Railroad not only in the eradication of slavery, but as a cornerstone of the national civil rights movement. To learn more, visit www.nps.gov/subjects/ugrr.