In a gray sweater, long black skirt and a red, printed headscarf, Millicent Sparks was Harriet Tubman.
She sang as she walked on the pathway of the Johnson House historic site lawn Saturday before she spoke about Tubman’s life. Her sisters, Sparks said as Tubman, were sold on the chain gang, never to be seen again.
“Slavery be hard times, children,” she repeated as she told her story. “Bad times.”
Sparks kicked off the Juneteenth National Freedom Day Festival in Germantown on Saturday. The holiday’s official date is today, June 19. It commemorates the end of slavery – the day in 1865 word of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War reached Galveston Texas, one of last holdouts of the Confederacy.
Sparks, as Tubman, gave the more than 60 present a history lesson. She explained how Harriet Tubman got her name. Harriet was her mother’s name, and Tubman was the last name of her husband, John Tubman, who was free.
She spoke about Tubman’s path to freedom and asked the audience when they thought Tubman traveled.
“Winter,” the character confirmed. “Winter nights be long. It gives you more time to run to freedom.”
Sparks also encouraged the children to value education, calling it their underground railroad.
A block comes together
The Juneteenth activities stretched from the Johnson House, an Underground Railroad site, to Cliveden, the Revolutionary War site and historic home of Benjamin Chew, patriarch of one of Philadelphia’s most prominent slave holding families. About 20 businesses along the 6300 block of the old road also participated, organized by the 6300 Germantown Avenue Business Alliance. They set up activities and displays alongside Germantown Avenue.
Cornelia Swinson, director of the Johnson House, said attendance at the celebration has increased each year, but people asked her to move the event this year to Saturday, instead of Sunday, because of the West Oak Lane Jazz Festival, which holds its finale on Sunday.
Pennsylvania does not recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday, through 39 other states do in some form, and there is an active movement to make it a federal holiday.
In 2006, Johnson joined with the alliance for the event to help bring the historic sites and the businesses on Germantown Avenue closer. Part of the celebration is funded through the alliance businesses, and with the help from state Rep. John Myers (D., Phila), Swinson said.
“[Juneteenth] wouldn’t have been recognized without people coming together,” she said. “We’re relevant to today. It’s about a community coming together.”
Some businesses took a quiet role by decorating windows. Others, such as Mt. Airy Real Estate, filled the block with music. Steve McField played the guitar to a small group. Owner and fellow musician Qaadir Logan is a member of the business alliance and was participating in the event for the first time. Next year, he said, he will try to get his whole band to perform.
Attendees were given a paper ‘passport’ form, to record at least eight clues from the businesses or sites to be eligible for a drawing at the Johnson House at the end of the celebration.
Across the street, at the Concord School House, Lynne Farrington and her two companions heard Logan’s music and wondered where it came from. The three were giving tours of the one-room schoolhouse. During a lull, they waited outside for more visitors.
Tours at Cliveden featured story teller Denise Valentine who talked about a slave named Jenora. She got the inspiration for the story from an old newspaper clipping that asked for the capture of Jenora. Through folklore and history, Valentine created a life for her.
As Valentine’s son, Sharif Valentine, played the drums, she described Jenora as a woman with a faraway look in her eyes who dreamed of freedom.
Valentine is working on developing similar stories for the Chews’ slaves, she said, for whom many details came to light in recent years when Cliveden staff members discovered family business documents dating to colonial times. The discovery is still transforming the treatment of history at the site.
One piece of history came to life in another way on Saturday when Vickie Still, the great-great-great niece of prominent abolitionist William Still, who wrote the “Underground Railroad” in 1840, visited the Johnson House for the first time.