If you have been on social media lately, you’ll have noticed a slew of events planned for the upcoming Juneteenth holiday. A new local group, the Voices Underground, has over 40 events listed in Chester County alone. Celebrations began last weekend with a Juneteenth Kickoff and will continue through July 3 with community events, walking tours, keynote speakers and more.
Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people in the US, was originally celebrated in Texas in 1866, three and a half years after slaves were declared free under the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation and a year after federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas ensuring all slaves there would be free. However, if you are finding it odd you never noticed a Juneteenth celebration in this area before and now we have 40 – it’s because the day just became recognized in the state of Pennsylvania two years ago (yes, that is over 150 years later) and there is a lot of catching up to do.
Some of the goals for this year’s programs are to promote African American cultural heritage in Chester County, nurture community collaboration, and expand the community’s narrative about itself. In the spirit of cultural understanding and community collaboration, I reached out to Malcolm Johnstone, Community Engagement Officer for Arts, Culture, and Historic Preservation at the Cultural Alliance of Chester County and author of the book: “For the Union: How Quaker abolition, a hanging, a slave riot and a small newspaper in West Chester helped launch Abraham Lincoln’s Quest for the presidency.”
In his book, Malcolm tells the story about how a West Chester newspaper came to be the publisher of the first biography of Mr. Lincoln. It may have been a brief history of the man but once published and reprinted in papers across the eastern United States it served to spread the name of a little known lawyer and former congressman from Illinois just in time for the 1860 Republican National Convention.
Q&A with Malcolm Johnstone
Q: Why did you decide it was important to tell this story?
A: The actual biography [of Abraham Lincoln] has only appeared in a couple of very obscure print publications and never online. The Chester County History Center has one of only two of the original publications. As I began researching how the biography came about, it became obvious that the story was as much about Quaker culture as it was politics. We decided there was enough of a story for a book.
Q: What interesting fact(s) did you learn from your research?
A: Pennsylvania was the first state to ban slavery in 1780. But it only affected future generations of Blacks. It wasn’t until 1847 that the last enslaved Pennsylvanians were actually freed. My favorite story is that of Joseph Lewis, the author of Lincoln’s first biography. In 1851, he teamed up with Thaddeus Stevens to defend Castner Hanway, a runaway slave who organized a slave uprising and killed his white master in an event called the Christiana Riot. Lewis and Stephens were able to gain an acquittal for Hanway and some 37 slaves accused of treason and violence. This happened ten years before the Civil War erupted but the good guys won the day at that. It was a small but significant battle.
Q: You are involved in several Juneteenth events this year, why is it important we commemorate this day?
A: Juneteenth began being celebrated in Texas in 1866. Since then the recognition and celebrations have slowly spread throughout the country.
Juneteenth became a Pennsylvania state holiday on June 19, 2019, with a declaration by Governor Tom Wolf, who refers to it as National Freedom Day. Too much was happening with the pandemic for any events to occur in 2020. So it wasn’t until this year that we are seeing Juneteenth broadly organized celebrations.
If you would like to participate in a Juneteenth event this year, here are several happening in West Chester:
On June 17, the annual Chester County Town Tours and Village Walks kicks off at the Chester County History Center with a virtual “Live at 5” program featuring William Kashatus, author of “William Still: The Underground Railroad and the Angel at Philadelphia.” At 6:45, 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. Learn more here.
On June 19, the Melton Center has a day of activities in partnership with West Chester Unit NAACP, Chester County History Center, and the Charles A. Melton Arts & Education Center. Details at MeltonCenter.org.
Also on June 19, the Underground Railroad Walking Tours take place at 11:00am and 1:00pm at the Chester County History Center. This is a pay as you wish event and registration is required. You can sign up here.
Find the complete list of Juneteenth Festival events including links to purchase tickets for the keynote speakers at Voices Underground.
If you would like to celebrate your successful completion of the Underground Railroad Walking Tour by treating yourself to the delicious tastes of a local black-owned business. Here are some great options a short additional walk away.
That is it. I hope you enjoy West Chester’s first official Juneteenth celebration.
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