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Chester County Press

The Declaration of Independence and the meaning of freedom

11/08/2023 12:20PM ● By Andy Dinniman

In 2026 we will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Southern Chester County has played a vital role in the fight for freedom up to this very day. While almost all of us know of the Battle of the Brandywine, we are probably not as familiar with the role played out in New London and Lower Oxford Townships.

The Pennsylvania Legislature, in coordination with the Commonwealth’s 250th Celebration Commission (A250PA) has made funding available for projects related to the meaningful understanding of the Declaration of Independence and its significance for today. Under the guidance of Lincoln University President Brenda Allen, former Senator Andy Dinniman, a Lincoln trustee, and Lincoln Vice President Ava Willis-Barksdale prepared a grant proposal. Senator Dinniman and Dr. Larycia Hawkins, Director of Lincoln University’s new Center for the Study of the Underground Railroad, presented the grant proposal before a legislative committee in October.

The grant is for the restoration of Hosanna Church/Free African Meeting House at Lincoln University. Hosanna is emblematic of the essence of the Declaration of Independence and the struggle for freedom in the American Revolution, and the fight against slavery, as well as the issues of equity and inclusion in our own time. This restoration project solidifies Hosanna’s place in the rich history of the area in which it is located, which includes the original Free Black community of Hinsonville, the New London Academy, and Lincoln University. 

Just as Lincoln University was the first degree-granting Historically Black University in America, the New London Academy, just five minutes away from Lincoln, was the first public (free) school in Pennsylvania.  Three signers of the Declaration of Independence were educated at New London Academy, including Thomas McKean, the second governor of Pennsylvania, whose family farm was also located near the Academy. The New London Presbyterian Church was instrumental in the founding of New London Academy.

Hinsonville, established in 1830, was a Free Black community, located, in part, on what is now Lincoln University. The Pennsylvania Historic Marker says the Hosanna structure, which this project aims to restore, was first known as the African Meeting House and in 1843, formally organized as a church. Only six miles away from states where slavery was legal, Hosanna served as an important stop on the Underground Railroad.  Many of the great abolitionists of the time, including Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, spoke at Hosanna. On its grounds are the graves of Black soldiers who fought in the Civil War.

Any understanding of African American history and the current issues of equity and inclusion in America and in Pennsylvania must appreciate the role of Lincoln University, founded in 1854, with the help of Hinsonville residents and an Oxford Presbyterian minister, James Miller Dickey. Lincoln graduates have included such prominent figures as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, poet Langston Hughes, presidents of African nations – Nnamdi Azikiwe (Nigeria) and Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), as well as many national and commonwealth leaders.  Albert Einstein came to Lincoln in 1947 to push for the fundamental civil rights embodied in the Declaration of Independence.

Restoring Hosanna preserves a tangible reminder of the struggles for freedom in this area of Pennsylvania. It represents not only the history, but also the hopes and dreams of today and tomorrow. The restoration will once again create a community meeting house where all can come to discover that history and to contemplate the current meaning of the Declaration. It is the responsibility of each generation of Americans to assess the meaning of the Declaration of Independence for their time.

It is important to note the economic force that emanates from historic tourism, with Hosanna being the venue for information and exploration of this particular historic area. Hosanna and Lincoln University are just 20 to 30 minutes away from the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway that runs through Maryland and Delaware. Hosanna will function as a magnet bringing visitors from the Byway into this area of Pennsylvania. Hosanna is also near the largest piece of open space on the Route 95 corridor, between the District of Columbia and New York City. Thus, it will also serve as a needed information center for visitors to this large area of natural landscape, which marks an area where those escaping slavery passed through.

But it is much more than historic tourism. The Hosanna restoration embodies the four pillars of A250PA: Educate, Preserve, Innovate and Celebrate. Our project, through preservation, educates and celebrates three signers of the Declaration of Independence; the area where the second governor of Pennsylvania lived; the Free Black Community of Hinsonville; the Underground Railroad; the place where great abolitionists came to speak; the first public school in Pennsylvania; the first Historically Black degree-granting University in America; and the very epicenter of where so many of the struggles for freedom took place.  We will provide innovative ways to learn about this area and to continue to herald its significance in our current time.

This project surely meets the legislative funding selection requirements that it be a legacy project that welcomes A250PA visitors to the Commonwealth and that it be a lasting legacy of freedom for future generations of Pennsylvanians.

To find out additional information on this project and how to assist in support for the grant, please contact Ava Willis-Barksdale ([email protected]) at Lincoln University.

Andy Dinniman, D.Ed. is a Lincoln University Trustee and served as a State Senator from 2006 to 2020.

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