The overarching theme of Chester County’s 2021 Juneteenth Festival is “Journeying towards Freedom.” These three words carry stories that transcend generations.
“Freedom is a complex and multi-faceted construct that requires efforts at many levels and on many fronts,” says Alexander Parham, Managing Director of Voices Underground. Freedom comes at a cost and requires community and engagement, he says, “Because none of us is free until all of us are free.” In that sense, Juneteenth celebrates not the achievement of that freedom but the forward progress of that journey.
“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.”
“Juneteenth is a beautiful opportunity,” Parham says, “to combat all the noise that we’re hearing right now by offering an oasis in the storm where we can hear these stories, dialogue, and begin to heal.”
Although stories about race in America can be very hard to tell—because so many of them are painful and because there’s often very little historical documentation—storytelling is at the heart of the work that Voices Underground seeks to do. Voices Underground executive director Greg Thompson explains that storytelling unlocks the imagination and enables us to reimagine, to see that change is possible, and to engage in action to create a new story.
Voices Underground, a project under the umbrella of Square Roots Collective and in partnership with 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 here in our local area through creative partnerships, scholarly research, public experiences, and historical memorialization. This year’s Juneteenth Festival reflects the diversity, creativity, and complexity of this work.
“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 says. “Chester County has celebrated Juneteenth for years, and Square Roots Collective and Voices Underground are helping us to amplify these stories.” This year’s celebration takes ongoing local conversations—about our heritage and its power to inform and reimagine the future—to another level.
“We looked at the smaller events that were happening—in West Chester, Coatesville, Phoenixville, and Kennett Square—and asked, ‘Why don’t we come together to uplift all of these events and launch a joint multi-day celebration?’” Parham says. As a result of this collaboration, this year’s county-wide Juneteenth Festival, from June 12 to July 4, comprises multiple programs and events that engage the senses and the soul. The diverse programming focused on the one common goal of promoting African American heritage is part of the beauty of this festival, Parham says.
The three ticketed events officially launching Juneteenth’s “keynote weekend” (June 18, 19, and 20), will all take place in or near Kennett Square and bring nationally known creatives to give voice and texture to these stories. “We want to expand the county’s narrative about itself,” Parham says. “We also want to promote unity, be a catalyst for further programming, and provide places where people can dialogue and share experiences. We want to animate those conversations and spark further conversations as we bring people together.”
At the first of these feature events, author, artist, and professor Dr. Joshua Bennett, the Mellon Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College whose repertoire includes spoken word poetry, will give a musical and lyrical performance at Longwood Gardens reflecting on the ongoing journey toward freedom. The evening will conclude with the debut of an Illuminated Fountain Performance entitled “Freedom.” Tickets and details for this event, on June 18, can be found here.
Caroline Randall Williams, Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University, works and speaks to the places where art, business, and scholarship intersect. She will give a lecture at Cheyney University on June 19 on the role of the artist in the journey towards freedom. In a recent New York Times piece entitled, “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument,” Williams describes how, as the descendant of Black slaves and the white confederate leaders who raped her Black ancestors, her biracial identity gives a different kind of testament to the history of the south. Kennett High School sophomore Isabella Hanson, who created the national art and poetry contest I Matter 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, will also be part of this event. Find tickets for this event here.
Finally, on June 20, Elijah Milligan will be hosting “Freedom’s Table,” a three-course meal and programming at Lincoln University to celebrate freedom and the goal of reconciliation that lies at the heart of our ongoing journey towards freedom. Milligan, a nationally acclaimed chef, founded the collaborative dinner series Cooking for the Culture. Cooking for the Culture celebrates African-American chefs and explores innovative ways to create equal opportunities in the food industry for the future of African-American chefs. Milligan’s newest venture in Philadelphia is Greenwood Supper Club, a pro-Black dining club inspired by the late Black Wall Street. Tickets and details for this event can be found here.
“The Juneteenth Festival provides a great opportunity to celebrate an important aspect of our area’s history, while also creating a compelling context that brings people together around issues of race,” says Luke Zubrod, Operations Lead at Square Roots Collective.
With so many different opportunities to listen, learn, taste, create, and engage in this journey towards freedom—including both virtual and in-person tours, seminars, and workshops in various locations throughout Chester County—there’s something for everyone. Organizers encourage community members to consult these three links for Juneteenth events: the keynote schedule, the county-wide schedule, and the schedule for local partner Kennett Heritage Center events—and plan to participate in as many of these experiences as possible.
Historic Kennett Square makes Kennett thrive. We intentionally create programs and events that help Kennett become a more beautiful and welcoming community where all can belong and prosper.