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Chester County Press

To Speak, to Educate, to Heal: Voices Underground Aspires to Tell Stories of African American History

10/21/2020 07:09PM ● By Richard L. Gaw

Sometimes, having the audacity to enlighten the world in the worst of times magnifies its tenacity and urgency to do so.

In this, the most volatile year of racial tension in the United States since the height of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, a new organization – supported by a university and a trailblazing local agency -- is laying the groundwork for changing the American racial imagination, simply by opening up the storybook of the African American experience.

Believing that a community can thrive only when all of its stories are heard, Square Roots Collective, in partnership with Lincoln University, launched Voices Underground in the Fall of 2019.

The goal of this project is to promote the nationally significant history of the Underground Railroad in our region through scholarly research, creative partnerships, public experiences, and historical memorialization.

These goals are part of what Voices Underground Executive Director Greg Thompson calls “the healing power of recognition.”

“Even if this current tension were not going on, we would create this organization anyway,” said Thompson, who is also a research fellow in African American Cultural Heritage at Lincoln University. “That we are doing this at a time when the nation is calling for the very thing we’re doing has been an extraordinary experience. These current social crises didn’t inaugurate our work, but it has reinforced its meaning, deepened its urgency and provided a lot more moral clarity around why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

The seedlings that have become Voices Underground began during conversations Thompson had with Mike Bontrager, co-founder of Square Roots Collective in 2017. Bontrager was visiting Memphis to see the world premiere of a hip-hop musical about the 1968 sanitation workers strike, which was being performed in the dilapidated Clayborn Temple on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Thompson was part of a team who was in the process of restoring the historic church where King once preached.

“Mike told me that he was interested in doing more to share the history of the Underground Railroad in Kennett Square, and asked if I would be willing to collaborate with him,” Thompson said.

After conducting some research on the subject, Thompson joined forces with SRC to find partnerships that would help launch Voices Underground. In March, Alex Parham was named the project’s managing director.

“I was impressed with the way that Greg and his team not only were preserving this historic site but how he used theater, art and music to draw people into stories that mattered,” Bontrager said. “It’s easy to understand the appeal of working with Greg, since our goal is not simply trying to draw attention to an important part of our area’s history, but that preservation or memorialization serves the greater mission of ‘racial healing through storytelling.’

“Not long after, we began to realize that our area played an even larger role in the underground railroad than we initially realized, which is why we are so thankful to find someone with Alex’s talents, skills and passions and have him join the team.”

Three Phases of Development

Together with Bontrager and other partners, Thompson and Parham are developing Voices Underground in a three-phase process.

  • It recently completed its project foundation phase that established preliminary research and partnerships, which in addition to the African American Cultural Heritage Center at Lincoln University and Square Roots Collective, also includes informal collaboration with the new Kennett Heritage Center in Kennett Square and the Kennett Underground Railroad Center.
  • Now in its two-year project design phase, Voices Underground is currently engaging the community in order to create the framework of its mission -- to tell the stories of the African American leaders in the Underground Railroad movement.
  • Once the design concept is in place, Voices Underground will embark on its two-and-a-half-year project implementation phase, which will lead to its Historical Memorialization Initiative, determining project programming, overseeing project construction, and eventually celebrating the memorial to the Underground Railroad through a series of public events.

“One of our first goals is moving our constituents from unawareness to awareness,” said Parham, a native of the Caribbean and a former news reporter in London, New York and Philadelphia. “We would like to create venues, platforms, documentaries, podcasts and interviews and create partnerships that enable this re-narration of history, so that when it’s time to execute the memorialization aspect of the project, we already have momentum.”

Although the names of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks and King have become synonymous with African American heritage, Thompson said that the proper telling of the Black experience in America must also include the excavation of the nation’s most severe scab, that dates back to the arrival of enslaved people from Africa to the country’s shores beginning in 1619.

 “A lot of the stories that we tell ourselves about this nation are predicated upon ignoring Black history,” he said. “If you want to tell yourself that the United States is the greatest force for good in the world, the only way you can do that with a straight face is to ignore the 400 years of essentially curtailing the freedoms on an entire race of people.

“To tell African American stories truthfully requires us to come to terms with some very horrible things that we have frankly been unwilling as a nation to fully come to terms with.”

Thompson and Parham said that while the Underground Railroad movement contains stories that are carved into the country’s unsettling history of enslavement, bigotry and marginalization, there are also tales of hope, sacrifice and dignity. All of them are part of a continuing dialogue that must be shared in order for the dialogue to move the country forward.

“Without imagination, healing cannot happen, and healing is only possible through truth telling,” he said. “America can’t be great, without telling the truth about itself.

“We cannot heal as a community or as a nation until we tell the truth, and we cannot tell the truth until we know the truth. Voices Underground is about helping people to experience and know the truth.”

Together with its many partners, Parham envisions Voices Underground reflecting Kennett Square and southern Chester County as a worldwide, educational hub for those interested in learning more about the Underground Railroad movement, as a key chapter marker in the story of American Black history.

“When I think of ‘voices underground,’ the name has a meaning for me that goes very deep, from an ancestor perspective,” he said. “I am envisioning that the work that we do will honor those voices that have been buried underground, or those who did not have the opportunity to love to their fullest capacity or potential.

“I imagine Voices Underground being the catalyst in establishing a place where people can come and get restored educationally, mentally and spiritually, in a way that allows them to recreate their own consciences.”

To learn more about Voices Underground, visit


 To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].