Juneteenth is a celebration of bravery, fortitude, and the awakening of our “better angels” – a wish for unity as stated in Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural address. And nowhere does the celebration of Juneteenth resonate more than in the Philadelphia region, Chester County and Kennett Square – all-important to the abolition movement and major stations on the underground railroad.
What is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth is a contraction of June and nineteen, also known as Freedom Day, Jubilation Day, Liberation Day, and Emancipation Day. It is a celebration of the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States. Originating in Galveston, Texas, it is now officially celebrated annually on the 19th of June in 47 states. It is commemorated on the anniversary date of the June 19, 1865 announcement by Union Army General Gordon Granger, proclaiming freedom from slavery in Texas.
In many ways, Juneteenth is more important than the reading of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It took the intention of the Emancipation Proclamation and made it universal – almost two and a half years after the signing- to include the border states and the frontier of Texas – the last outposts of slavery.
While the Emancipation Proclamation declared that as of January 1, 1863, all enslaved people in the states currently engaged in rebellion against the Union “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free” the Proclamation itself didn’t actually free any of the approximately 4 million men, women and children held in slavery in the United States when it was signed the following January. The document applied only to enslaved people in the Confederacy, and not to those in the border states that remained loyal to the Union. But its symbolic power was enormous, as it announced freedom for enslaved people as one of the North’s war aims, alongside preserving the Union itself.
As the tide of the war turned in favor of preserving the Union and against the Confederacy, black Americans were welcomed into the Union Army and were integral in helping to defeat the Confederate cause thus paving the way for the more permanent and universal remedy – the 13th amendment to the Constitution.
The Importance of Juneteenth in Chester County
The fight for individual freedom and abolition has a long history that predates the 19th century. The Philadelphia area and Chester County with the locus in Kennett Square was a hotbed of Underground Railroad activity and the universal fight for freedom.
The Underground Railroad, a vast network of people who helped fugitive slaves escape to the North and to Canada, was not run by any single organization or person. Rather, it consisted of many individuals, both white and black. It was an organized system to assist runaway slaves that began towards the end of the 18th century.
In 1786, George Washington complained about how one of his runaway slaves was helped by a “society of Quakers, formed for such purposes.” The system grew, and around 1831 it was dubbed “The Underground Railroad,” after the then-emerging steam railroads. The system even used terms used in railroading: the homes and businesses where fugitives would rest and eat were called “stations” and “depots” and were run by “stationmasters,” those who contributed money or goods were “stockholders,” and the “conductor” was responsible for moving fugitives from one station to the next. Each “conductor” knew only of their own local efforts to aid fugitives and not of the overall operation.
Many of the conductors of the Underground Railroad escorted people and families to the safe “stations” or “depots” in Kennett Square and West Chester, PA. The locations of these safe houses and the cemeteries for those who did not make it have been preserved as a testament to the powerful draw toward freedom and equality that is cherished here to this day.
Located near the border with Maryland, Kennett Square and its many Quaker residents were abolitionists. You can still see The Fussell House, also known as The Pines, located at the intersection of Old Baltimore Pike (Rt. 1) and McFarland Road, one of the “stations” on the Underground Railroad. The home was owned by Dr. Benjamin Fussell, one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society.
As a result of the rich history in the area, Kennett Square and Chester County have annual celebrations of Juneteenth, to remind us of what we all can accomplish when working towards common values of community, equality and integrity.
Events to Celebrate Juneteenth in Chester County
There are many events scheduled in Chester County and Kennett Square, in celebration of the sacrifice and courage of those traveling and conducting on the Underground Railroad. Guided-walking tours of local railroad stops, cemeteries and exhibits have been scheduled to commemorate this date. The Cultural Alliance of Chester County has a complete schedule of events throughout the area- just click here to learn more! Events include a Juneteenth Walk in Kennett along with a presentation by the community choir in Anson B. Nixon Park. There are Underground Railroad site tours, A Juneteenth Poetry Slam, and a Journey to Freedom Festival as well- Be sure to click on the calendar to see all of the events.
Kendal-Crosslands Communities Supports Our Local History and Legacy
As part of our deep Quaker roots and celebration of our mutual humanity, Kendal-Crosslands Communities honor our area’s rich cultural legacy and the promise of continued work toward social justice. We honor those whose work, sacrifices and legacy inspire us to remember who we are, what we have done and what we still have yet to achieve.