Chester County Juneteenth Festival will explore 'the ongoing journey'06/02/2021 12:14PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
On June 19, 1865, after a bitter Civil War of warring ideologies had threatened to rip apart the entire fabric of the United States, freedom was granted to a group of enslaved African Americans in Galveston Texas.
That event led to the observance of African American Emancipation Day, or what is commonly referred to as “Juneteenth,” and while it is the oldest celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States, the significance and meaning of the date has too often become overlooked, misunderstood and tacked on the peripheral end of acknowledgement when it comes to the continuing story of U.S. history.
Beginning this past weekend and extending until July, a consortium of partnering organizations throughout Chester County are about to place Juneteenth at the head of the history lesson, with a breathtaking schedule of events that will endear to kick-start a national conversation about African American life, culture and the pursuit of equality.
Voices Underground – a project under the umbrella of Square Roots Collective and in partnership with Lincoln University -- is producing The Chester County Juneteenth Festival: Journeying Towards Freedom -- in collaboration with the Chester County Historic Preservation Society, the Chester County History Center, the Chester County Planning Commission and numerous other partners.
Beginning with tours of the New Evergreen and Chestnut Grove cemeteries in Coatesville that honored African American military men and women this past weekend and ending with self-guided tours of the Barnard Railroad Station on July 4, the festival will offer more than three dozen events throughout the county – from Lincoln University to Cheyney University and at several locations in between.
“We’re celebrating the spirit of willingness to journey towards freedom, and the fact that we’re still journeying,” says Nina Kelly, director of Marketing & Communications at the Chester County Conference & Visitors Bureau. “We’re celebrating the end of a hateful and horrific time in history. We have to accept that time to move on from it.
“Southern Chester County has a really rich heritage on so many levels,” says Kelly. “The story of the Underground Railroad brings people together — including Quakers and free Blacks committed to abolishing the evil of slavery and enslaved people fleeing bondage — in this strategic place, this side of freedom over the Mason-Dixon Line.
“These are stories of resilience that honor this legacy and the beauty of diversity and of the people we all know and love as brothers and sisters,” she added. “Chester County has celebrated Juneteenth for years, and Square Roots Collective and Voices Underground are helping us to amplify these stories.”
Voices Underground, a joint initiative of Square Roots Collective and Lincoln University, works towards its vision—healing the American racial imagination through exposing people to the truth of American racial history—through its mission, which is to increase exposure to the story of the Underground Railroad and its connection to southern Chester County through creative partnerships, scholarly research, public experiences, and historical memorialization.
Racial healing through story telling
Square Roots Collective co-founder Mike Bontrager said this year’s Juneteenth Festival reflects the diversity, creativity, and complexity of this work.
“Voices Underground is part of the Square Roots Collective mission, which asks, ‘What does it take for a community to thrive?’” Bontrager said. “Certainly the mission of Voices Underground is racial healing through story telling, and the idea of inviting people into these stories as a way to have understanding, so that we begin to lean toward each other rather than away from each other.”
In addition to a generous schedule of events and activities, the month-long celebration will be highlighted by a “Keynote Weekend” from June 18-20 that will invite three prominent figures. Author, artist, and professor Dr. Joshua Bennett, the Mellon Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College, will give a musical and lyrical performance at Longwood Gardens on June 18, reflecting on the ongoing journey toward freedom. The evening will conclude with the debut of an Illuminated Fountain Performance entitled “Freedom.”
On June 19, Caroline Randall Williams, Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University, will present a lecture at Cheyney University about the role of the artist in the journey towards freedom. At that event, the winners of the “I Matter” poetry competition will perform their works before the audience. The competition was created by Kennett High School student Isabella Hanson to provide a platform for young people to process the pain they experience as a result of witnessing the violence and injustices that disproportionately impact the Black community.
On June 20, the keynote events will conclude with “Freedom’s Table” at Lincoln University, presented by nationally-acclaimed chef Elijah Milligan, the founder of the collaborative dinner series “Cooking for the Culture” and Philadelphia’s Greenwood Supper Club.
Luke Zubrod of Square Roots Collective said that this will be an event that elevates the celebration of other organizations throughout the county to educate the general public about Juneteenth.
“In order to accomplish significant things for the community, it takes a lot of people coming together and saying ‘Yes, this is important,’” Zubrod said. “This is an event that some others in the community were owning in the past and then, seeing how Voices Underground materialized in recent years, thought that this would be a great event for the organization to become a part of, and invited us into the conversation.
“It evolved into this form of seeing so many celebrations happening around the county at different time and in different places. The idea began to emerge of creating a broader county-wide celebration with keynote events that serve to draw a wider audience into the celebration.”
‘Freedom is a moving target’
Perhaps the worst-kept secret in the American conversation is how – or how it doesn’t – respond to the issue of race – which forms the very basis of the Juneteenth celebration and one that will be front and center in Chester County for an entire month.
There is, however, true and recent evidence that the story wants to continue to be told locally. Two “Black Lives Matter” events in Kennett Square and West Grove in 2020 drew hundreds in peaceful protest; a Juneteenth celebration was held at the Fussell House; the Kennett Heritage Center and the Chester County History Center have been front and center in their mission to continue to tell the story about the local significance in the Underground Railroad movement; and a contingent of African American women who walked from Maryland to Pennsylvania in honor of Harriet Tubman last year chose to end their journey in Kennett Square, a prominent spot on the Underground Railroad map.
For Voices Underground Managing Director Alex Parham, who is working with Executive Director Greg Thompson to produce the event, emphasized the significance of the festival’s subtitle, “Journeying Towards Freedom.” He said that while events like these have pushed the pebble forward, it is only the beginning of what will become a long journey.
“One of the things that Greg and I always talk about is movement, so when you think about the research that we put into place, all the way back to the enslaved bible, it removes all passages and scriptures that concern movement, so that idea was to make sure that the enslaved people understood that they would have to be still or not have an option to journey towards their birthright,” he said. “The idea for us is to say that freedom is a moving target that requires an ongoing journey, and we know that the concept of freedom is a multi-faceted construct that requires effort on many levels.
“Freedom also requires a community effort and community effort. To quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘None of us is free until all of us are free.’ It is about collaboration, but also the feeling that we are all on a pilgrimage.”
Bontrager said that the month-long event is a way to invite not only the conversation to move forward, but to invite them to embark on their own journeys.
“We’re all at different places in our journey,” he said. “I’m still trying to understand race, and I have a long way to go, but I am on a journey, and it requires a lot of listening, a lot of stories and engagement with people. Our call is ‘Come on the journey.’ We would love to see Chester County continuing to move in the right direction.
“If these ideals are not incarnated in some way, there is no platform to move yourself along on your own journey.”
For more information about the Chester County Juneteenth Festival, visit vuproject.org/juneteenth.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].
Celebrate the Juneteenth Festival in Chester County
10:00 a.m. For the Union: A Guided Walking Tour led by Malcolm Johnstone of the Cultural Alliance of Chester County. Commemorates official surrender of the Civil War. Tour begins at Chester County History Center, 225 North High Street and concludes at Lincoln Building in West Chester.
7:00 p.m. Juneteenth Kickoff Celebration: A United Faith Community. Virtual performance by the Lincoln University Choir, Kennett Community Choir and others.
7:00 p.m. Juneteenth Celebration in Phoenixville. A virtual collaboration of community organizations will present a weeklong schedule of art programs, speakers, and family events. The new interactive Trail to Freedom exhibit at the Schuylkill River Heritage Center will open on June 18. With speaker Kyle Bowen, Speaker and host Lou Becarria. For tickets, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/148854893995
7:00 p.m. A virtual art exhibit with Dane Tilghman and Diana Hunter. For tickets, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/148854893995.
7:00 p.m. Iron Age Theatre and Evangelia Biddy conduct virtual re-enactments and storytelling. For tickets, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/148854893995
7:00 p.m. Virtual African Dance/Drumming. For tickets, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/148854893995
7:00 p.m. Virtual cooking with Mayor Peter and Rosalyn Sheckleford. For tickets, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/148854893995
5:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. Kick Off of Town Tours and Village Walks, West Chester. Led by the Chester County Planning Commission, Chester County Historic Preservation Network, and the West Chester Historical Commission. A virtual “Live at 5” program will feature author William Kashatus. At 6:45 p.m., walking tours that focus on African American history in West Chester and a book signing by Mr. Kashatus will be held at Chester County History Center. Chester County History Center, 225 North High Street. To learn more, visit https://chescoplanning.org/HisResources/TownTours.cfm
11:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m. Interactive Exhibit: A Path to Freedom, featuring Underground Railroad sites across Chester County. Schuylkill River Heritage Center, 2 North Main Street, Phoenixville. To learn more, visit https://diaphoenixville.org.
2: 00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m. Lighting the Way Lantern Making Workshop. Philadelphia walking artist Ken Johnston will lead a lantern making workshop in the afternoon, followed by a lantern parade at sunset. American Legion Hall, 100 North Broad Street, Kennett Square. To learn more, visit www.KennettHeritageCenter.org.
6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. Ice Cream Social Kick-off and Story Circle. Enjoy ice cream, popsicles, and story time with Linda Harris, founder of “We Walk with Harriett” and Camp Harriet. American Legion Hall, 100 North Broad Street, Kennett Square. To learn more, visit www.KennettHeritageCenter.org.
7:00 p.m. Virtual performance by magician Ran D. Shine. To get tickets, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/148854893995
6:00 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. Keynote Event Continuing the Journey: An evening with Dr. Joshua Bennett, Longwood Gardens Open Air Theatre. Acclaimed poet, performer and professor will give a musical and lyrical performance reflecting on the ongoing journey toward freedom.
All Joshua Bennett Presentation ticket holders are invited to stay and stroll the gardens, ending with an Illuminated Fountain Performance entitled “Freedom” at 9:15 p.m. Making its debut on Juneteenth, this tribute to the end of slavery in the United States honors and recognizes the themes of freedom, hope, and strength.
Tickets are $35. For tickets, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/continuing-the-journey-an-evening-with-joshua-bennett-tickets-146953262163
9:00 a.m. Flag Raising Ceremony and Planting of the “Freedom Evergreen,” The Charles Melton Arts and Education Center, 501 East Miner St., West Chester. To learn more, visit www.meltoncenter.org
10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. Journey Toward Freedom family walk, Kennett Underground Railroad Center, 120 N. Union Street., Kennett Square. Walkers will travel from station to station, guided by QR codes that will present questions, myths, and truths of Underground Railroad activity. To learn more, visit www.KennettUndergroundRR.org.
10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. Abolitionists, Conductors and Underground Railroad Stations, exhibit and book & map sale in the Annex at the Kennett Heritage Center, 120 N. Union St. Also held on June 20. To learn more, visit www.KennettUndergroundRR.org.
10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. History of African Union Church of New Garden Township & Bucktoe Cemetery. Video presentation by Crystal Crampton, church member and Bucktoe Cemetery interpreter. This church was one of the earliest churches in the area established by free blacks. Freedom seeker Isaac Mason was sheltered there on his flight from slavery. To learn more, visit www.KennettUndergroundRR.org.
10:30 a.m. United States Colored Troops: Agents of Emancipation. Talk and book signing by author Dr. Cheryl Gooch, who will be accompanied by the Massachusetts 54th USCT re-enactors. American Legion Hall, 100 North Broad Street, Kennett Square. To learn more, visit www.KennettHeritageCenter.org.
11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Feed Your Soul Box lunch benefits New Garden Memorial UAME Church. 309 East Linden Street, Kennett Square. Choice of fried fish or baked chicken includes sides and dessert. To pre-order your $15 lunch, visit www.kennettheritagecenter.org/feed-your-soul.html or call Crystal Crampton at (302) 750-1926.
11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Mushroom Soup Sale, Bethel AME Church, 301 East Linden Street, Kennett Square. To learn more, call Rev. Lilieth Baugh at (610) 990-2725.
11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. Walking Tour: Discover sites connected to the Underground Railroad in West Chester. Chester County History Center. To reserve tickets, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/137958318043 or call Jennifer Green at (610) 692-4800.
12:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. Foundry Presentation, Buffalo Soldiers, Civil War Memorial, Father’s Read, Kyle Boyer: Raffle and Auction winners announced. For tickets, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/148854893995.
1:00 p.m. Always Free: A one-woman performance by Oni Lasana as Mary Ella Grandberry. American Legion Hall, 100 N. Broad St., Kennett Square. To learn more, visit www.KennettHeritageCenter.org.
5:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. Keynote Event
The Role of the Artist in the Journey Toward Freedom: An evening with Caroline Randall Williams. Evening will also include performances from the winners of the inaugural “I Matter” Poetry competition. Cheyney University. Cost is $35. For tickets and event details, visit https://www.vuproject.org/keynote.
10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. Journey Toward Freedom family walk, beginning at the Kennett Underground Railroad Center, 120 N. Union St. in Kennett Square. Walkers will travel from station to station, guided by QR codes that will present questions, myths, and truths of Underground Railroad activity. Donation: www.KennettUndergroundRR.org.
10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Abolitionists, Conductors and Underground Railroad Stations. Exhibit and book and map sale in the Annex at the Kennett Heritage Center, 120 N. Union St. Donation: www.KennettUndergroundRR.org.
10:00 to 2:00 p.m. History of African Union Church of New Garden Township & Bucktoe Cemetery. Video presentation by Crystal Crampton, a church member and Bucktoe Cemetery interpreter. This church was one of the earliest churches in the area established by free blacks. Freedom seeker Isaac Mason was sheltered there on his flight from slavery. Kennett Heritage Center, 120 N. Union St., Kennett Square. To learn more, visit www.KennettUndergroundRR.org
12:00 p.m. Kennett Heritage Center: Remembering the Past. See videos that relate the history of slavery, abolition, and emancipation can be viewed on Kennett Heritage Center’s You Tube channel.
1:30 p.m. Kennett Underground Railroad Bus Tour: Visit the sites where abolitionists lived, and Underground Railroad activity took place. Bus leaves from the Brandywine Valley Visitor Information Center, 300 Greenwood Road. Cost is $23 and benefits the Kennett Underground Railroad Center. Tickets at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/149709309575
11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. Catch the Spirit: A self-guided walking tour in Longwood Cemetery. Longwood Cemetery is the final resting place of many Kennett area Underground Railroad operators, abolitionists, and Civil War soldiers, including U.S. Colored Troops. Event Details: Get the tour QR code at Brandywine Valley Visitor Information Center, 300 Greenwood Rd. Kenneth Square, adjacent to the cemetery. To learn more, visit https://www.KennettUndergroundRR.org
6:00 p.m. Keynote Event Freedom’s Table: A Dinner with Chef Elijah Milligan, at Lincoln University. Freedoms Table is hosted by Greenwood Supper Club, a non-traditional pop-up supper club that illustrates the appreciation of cultural nuances among Black and Brown communities through culinary experiences. Greenwood Supper Club was co-founded by acclaimed chef, Elijah Milligan and Creative Director, Chrystin Bunion. This event -- a three-course meal and programming -- will celebrate the bounties of freedom and the goal of reconciliation that lies at the heart of our ongoing Journey Toward Freedom. Tickets are $100. To learn more, visit https://www.vuproject.org/keynote
7:00 p.m. Bayard Rustin: An Agitator for Justice. Author Dr. John D’Emilio will lead an exploration of the life and activism of civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin. The virtual event will be sponsored by the Chester County History Center. To reserve tickets, contact Jennifer Green at 610-692-4800.
5:00 p.m. Town Tours & Village Walks Live at Five Virtual Webinar, sponsored by the Kennett Heritage Center, with Ken Johnston.
5:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. Barnard Station Town Tour and Village Walk “Live at Five” Virtual Webinar, presented by the Pocopson Historical Committee & Friends of Barnard Station. Visit a home on the Underground Railroad and learn about other nearby abolitionists. This is a free event and all ages are welcome. To learn more, visit
Barnard Station Self-Guided Tours, sponsored by the Pocopson Historical Committee and Friends of Barnard Station. These tours present a rare opportunity to see an Underground Railroad station.