Cincinnati’s Juneteenth Tradition Continues in Spite of the Pandemic

May 29th, 2021  |  Published in May 2021

Cincinnati’s Juneteenth Celebration began with Lydia Morgan in 1988. She accompanied her husband Noel on a business conference in Phoenix, Arizona where they met another couple. The wife said, “We’re going to the Juneteenth festival,” She was an entertainer and that’s how she knew about it. In a local park were Native Americans, African Americans and lots of speakers. Morgan said, “The festival had the feeling of a family reunion.” She enjoyed the experience so much that when she returned home, she started to talk about the festival with family and friends. “This is huge,” she said. “Why don’t we celebrate the end of slavery?”

Morgan formed a volunteer committee and organized a party in Daniel Drake Park attracting about 1,500 participants. She received a call from a member of the Park Board telling her she needed a permit and 13 policemen.  The event was held. “Children were running out of the woods and the snakes came out,” Morgan said. “It was a wonderful day.”

The annual festival has continued to reflect its origins in a racially integrated community with both multi-racial organization and attendance. Former WCIN owner John Thomas paid for headliners such as the Ohio Players and did the publicity.

The festival has thrived in succeeding years and offers a wide variety of food, clothing, art, folk crafts, ethnic arts and literature. Features have included such diverse, family-centered (and free) activities as traditional storytelling, magic acts, sack races, sweet potato pie bake-offs and a wide variety of music.

Morgan called donors about a virtual event because of COVID. They responded positively. On May 22, there was a filming with entertainers and a production of two videos. One will air on Channel 19 on June 20 from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and the other on public access.

Festival volunteers adjusted to the COVID pandemic with activities beginning in March and continuing through June 19. They collaborated with the Kennedy Heights Arts Center from February 27 to March 27 to present art and music reflecting the Harlem Renaissance. Curated by Lex Nicole and G. Horton, twelve commissioned pieces were exhibited at the Arts Center.  Artists included Michael Coppage, Asmara Abraham and Natasha Quintano. Four films are available on Vimeo and YouTube.

Also available for streaming on YouTube and Vimeo is Virtual Juneteenth, a musical celebration video, featuring art as well as jazz by CPS students and faculty in addition to dance by Revolution Dance Theater.

Dancers will cross the Purple People Bridge from Newport to Cincinnati on June 13 at 3:00 p.m. in a tribute to the significant role of water in African American history. Everyone is welcome to join. Attire is white with an accent color of your choice. Across the country and beyond dancers will join virtually performing near bodies of water.

According to Morgan, “Water was an inescapable aspect of the slave experience. Africans began their journey by traveling across the Atlantic Ocean crammed like cattle in the holds of slave ships. Once in the United States, they were shipped up river and down to plantations and farms where they would spend the rest of their lives in bondage. The Ohio River was the symbolic and real boundary between enslavement and freedom.  Escape via the Underground Railroad sometimes began with refuge in watery southern swamps.”

The raising of the Juneteenth flag will be June 1 at Cincinnati Art Museum at 10:00 a.m. and June 18 at Cincinnati City Hall at a time to be determined.

Only three states, Hawaii, North Dakota and South Dakota, have not recognized Juneteenth as a ceremonial holiday. Hamilton County declared Juneteenth (June 19) as a holiday in September 2020.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is joining nine museums and historical institutions from across the nation to commemorate Juneteenth through BLKFREEDOM.org. The annual collaboration has produced a film documenting the national exploration of the deep-rooted anthem “Life Every Voice and Sing” through the eyes of historic museums and anthropologists from across the United States. The film premieres at noon on June 15.

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that all enslaved people in the rebellious states were free on January 1, 1863. While the Proclamation achieved an intended effect of encouraging many enslaved people to flee plantations and join the union forces, it proclaimed the freedom of only those enslaved people held in the Confederacy, which did not recognize Lincoln’s authority.

General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 leading federal occupation forces three months after the end of the Civil War. He immediately proclaimed Texas to be under US authority and reissued the Emancipation Proclamation. BLKFREEDOM.org commemorates the moment when Granger declared the Civil War had ended and the enslaved were now free.

Celebration of June 19 as Juneteenth or Emancipation Day quickly spread through parts of the Southwest including Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. The popularity of Juneteenth declined in the 1940’s.  In recent decades, however, the celebration has been rediscovered as an appropriate occasion to remember the legacy of slavery and celebrate emancipation. Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official state holiday in 1980.

There are bills in the state House of Representatives and national House of Representatives proposing a movement to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

Juneteenth Cincinnati is an Ohio non-profit-corporation staffed entirely by volunteers with the help of many sponsors and donors. Its fiscal agent is the Kennedy Heights Community Council.

For more information, visit www.juneteenthcincinnati.org.

–Laura Hobson

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