How Much Has Cincinnati Changed in 20 Years?

The police killing of Timothy Thomas in April 2001 made us take a hard look at our city’s treatment of Black men. But has anything changed?

In some aspects, Cincinnati is a very different place than it was two decades ago. But when it comes to race relations, it’s almost exactly the same. Black people living and working here can attest to the structural racial divide that continues to undergird their experiences.

Illustration by Kingsley Mebechi

Beneath the city’s shiny new buildings, popular restaurants, and everyday wheeling, dealing, and power brokering lie the ashes of April 2001. That’s when Over-the-Rhine exploded in an uprising after the death of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of then-Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach, and it was a reckoning that some say was a long time coming.

Later that summer, Cincinnati Magazine dedicated an entire issue to telling the stories of local Black boys and men from all walks of life. With a mix of narrative profile stories and first-person “as told to” pieces, it was a long overdue chance to hear directly from community members whose lives reeled from society’s ingrained racial inequity. I was an editorial intern at the magazine that spring and summer, and I conducted a number of the interviews included in the issue we titled “The Unheard Voices: Growing Up Young, Black, and Male.” I recently reached out to eight of the men featured then to find out what they’ve been doing over the past 20 years and to hear their thoughts on the state of race relations today.


2001: Recent Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy graduate and August 2001 cover subject
NOW: Bioethicist and doctoral student in philosophy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville

Photograph by Molly Meinbresse

I have some fond memories of Cincinnati and, in many ways, I was insulated from some socioeconomic touchpoints of that moment [in 2001]. I don’t think I had the right tools at the time to properly process the significance of the things that were happening, but I feel better equipped to reflect on the compound issues that people were trying to express and address at the time.

I draw parallels between the murder of Timothy Thomas and some of the recent police killings of Black men. It’s tragic how the same issues seem to recur. I have now had many more experiences of being racialized as Black than when I was 17. Some of these experiences have been good, of course, but too many of them have been negative.

I’m not very optimistic that issues like racial injustice can ever be completely eliminated. Race relations are subject to the work that we, as a society, are willing to put into them. The nationwide protests for the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others are signifiers of the right kind of moral progress on this front, but the reality of our limitations as humans means that this will be a monstrous task.

I have become a philosopher, which has forced me to approach racial concepts and experiences with a much more critical and academic eye. Unfortunately, one of the things I’ve come to realize is how stubbornly persistent some of the race-based harms remain. At the same time, I have gained a greater appreciation for my Blackness and a heightened sense of solidarity with people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds who care about the lived experiences of people of African descent.

We, as a society, need to be much more attuned to those who are suffering. We also need to stop holding individuals accountable for societal failures. The killing of Timothy Thomas was a societal failure. I think the communal response to that killing and the social realities that led to that moment were also indicative of societal failures that we need to continue to grapple with. In my small, fallible ways, I’ve tried to dedicate my life to confronting these failures head on.


2001: Working at Talbert House; interviewed with his son, Lawrence II.
NOW: The College Hill resident retired from his role as vice president of Talbert House in 2012.

Photograph courtesy Lawrence Williams Sr.

I learned long ago that the ability to be relational was an asset in this world, especially learning to relate with people as individuals. That said, I remain acutely aware of the enduring challenges of being Black in a society sick with multiple “-isms,” topped by racism and blinding white privilege.

Racism is an expression of the heart-sentiment and is interwoven into every facet of our society. Until there is a recognition and acceptance of this illness on an individual level, followed by earnest efforts to change—similar to the first steps in achieving sobriety: recognition and acceptance—such change will not happen. Condition shifts are always the driver of any change. Selfishness and ignorance (often willful) is so deep that such conditions will have to get far worse than they are or have ever been before honest efforts and real change happen.

The individual is the valued object of my relationships. I like to think that I’m always working toward the best version of myself, and I try to keep an open mind and look for opportunities to enjoy the humanity of others. Unfortunately, I must maintain vigilance because the scourge of racism is a powerfully destructive force.

I can’t say that there were lessons learned from 2001. Only the keen awareness of how little our city, state, and country has learned from the many previous similar experiences of unrest initiated by the same things.


2001: McCray wrote a first-person essay on finding his writing voice while growing up in Walnut Hills.
NOW: A writer and adjunct instructor at Georgia Gwinnett College in Athens, Georgia. His book of poetry, Rapture, won the 2015 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets.

Photograph courtesy Sjohnna McCray

In the last 20 years, I’m not sure much has changed in the way the average Black male is treated in society. I use the word “average” because white people use Barack Obama being president as an example of America’s progress. He is not the norm, however; he is the exception. The average Black man does not have the Secret Service to protect us when we get pulled over, walk to the corner store, or simply go jogging.

I think race relations can change for the better in the U.S., but there needs to be a reckoning with history. America’s history needs to be fully taught, and that includes not only the vicious, immoral brutality of slavery but the major contributions of Blacks and all marginalized peoples to the country’s success. History is messy, full of heroes and villains or figures who encompass both. It should be rendered as such. Nothing will change without the truth, and I believe that starts with factual, honest curriculum and responsible teachers.

Our racially divided country can heal and thrive if people are willing to do the work. This work requires curiosity, empathy, patience, and a willingness to share. For me, it required true acknowledgment of my race and existence. It also required me to forgive. We inherited a history, but it doesn’t have to ravage the future. This doesn’t mean having historical or systemic amnesia. The work is continuous.

The 2001 uprising, subsequent uprisings, and the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrate that white supremacy is a cyclical cancer that can be dormant or outrageous—like the Capitol Hill insurrection—but is ever present. Even though the world seemed to wake out of a complacent daze during the BLM demonstrations, it should not have taken this long. Too much Black blood has been spilled without con­sequence via the law.

Even though I navigate the world as a somewhat safe Black adult, everything I learned about surviving in Cincinnati, in America, I learned from my father as a teenager: Always pay attention to your surroundings, always be of two minds (overly suspicious but with a constant smile), do what the officer tells you, and always carry a state ID.


2001: Working as a youth advocate at Taft High School; interviewed with his father, Lawrence Sr.
NOW: District sales manager at a pharmaceutical company, living in Liberty Township

Photograph courtesy Lawrence Williams II

At the time of the uprising, I recall having a conversation with a male Taft student about his perception of the changing community [in Over-the-Rhine]. “We see all these people moving in that are eating good and we ain’t eating good,” he said. “People are going to do what they have to do to eat.” During this time, you had an environment where Black people were fighting to live an American life in a community they were being pushed out of while being aggressively policed. The murder of Timothy Thomas was the spark that ignited an inevitable rebellion.

While I have been blessed materially over the last 20 years with additional education and advances in my career, my state of being Black in America is unchanged. The ability to navigate American life in the way that my white counterparts can is vastly different without wealth transfers from grandparents and parents. I’m still one of the few Black faces in the corporate spaces I occupy, as it was during my undergraduate and graduate studies. I still have to consider my posture and positioning in seemingly benign interactions as a large, dark-complected man in ways that would never cross the minds of my white counterparts.

The improvement of race relations in the U.S. is possible but improbable without specific redress—i.e., reparations for American descendants of slavery and a Black policy agenda that closes the racial wealth gap. Reconciliation is a secondary step to the repair. There is a debt owed to the people who were codified by their government and private actors as the wealth engine that built the country.

I have always had an affinity for politics and, more specifically, the impact of politics on Black life. There have been obvious changes when I consider that in the last 20 years we’ve had the first Black U.S. president of Kenyan and American lineage and currently the first Black vice president of Jamaican and Indian lineage. I have an appreciation of the symbolism and the impact it has on Black people specifically and the country generally from a perception of progress or change. Substantively, though, I see very little evidence of tangible change.

The lesson is the same whether you consider uprisings in 1841, 1967, 1968, 2001, or 2020. When a virtually powerless people are continuously bottom casted, redlined, gentrified, brutalized by police, mass incarcerated, underemployed, and undereducated, the reaction is predictable.


2001: The teenager used hip-hop to talk about his life and those around him in the West End.
NOW: Telemarketing manager and part-time studio engineer, living in New Port Richey, Florida. He still raps under the name Mason Caine.

Photograph courtesy Richard Ward

That time period was when I became aware of my surroundings and the perception of Black youth in Cincinnati. I fell into hip-hop and contemporary art very heavy, and that laid the foundation for things that still exist in my life today. I was living downtown on Ezzard Charles Drive, and the streets, projects, and parks were always alive. I tell my kids that we took buses everywhere and there was no social media; just texting and going outside and going to church.

Moving from Ohio to Florida was a small culture shock. I went from Withrow High School’s Black majority student body to being 90 percent of the Black population at Hudson [High School in Hudson, Florida] solely by myself. My mother became president of the African American Club of West Pasco County, so I quickly learned the dynamics of rural areas in Central Florida with Confederate flags, etc.

Things haven’t changed that much, except you of course see more diversity in various facets of life and, for better or worse, we’ve watched mainstream America embrace hip-hop and urban culture. Getting older, you learn the lesson your parents told you about being a young Black man. I still get pulled over in business attire. Having ’locs for over seven years and cutting them, I saw a difference in how I was treated during interviews, even though I might have been overqualified for the job.

The 2001 uprising showed me a glimpse into what Cincinnati thought about us as Black people with the handling of Officer Stephen Roach. I will never forget his name. As I have become older and a father, I use those experiences to guide my family.

Race relations have already changed, just not as much or as fast as we would like. Look at interracial couples. Look at social media, TV, and all the social activism being pushed to the forefront. It has to give you hope. It just sucks that the Timothy Thomas killing started our unrest in Cincinnati and 20 years later we’re still dealing with those types of situations.


2001: Attending Western Reserve Academy, a private high school in northeast Ohio
NOW: Athletic director at Woodward Career Technical High School, living in Mt. Healthy

Photograph courtesy Jabreel Moton

That was a unique time in my life. I remember talking to my mom back home daily about all that was going on. I was not here to experience it firsthand, but it was scary to think of all the struggles going on while I was safely up in northern Ohio, focusing on hoops and school. I was being exposed to an entirely different way of life, where I didn’t have to worry about riots or curfews. A part of me wanted to be home, feeling like I could protect my mom and sisters from all that was going on.

Being Black has not changed much for me in the last 20 years. I am a lot more aware of just how my Blackness defines who I am in many surroundings before I open my mouth to say a single word. I have had experiences that allow me to be comfortable in most spaces, but still always aware that my Blackness can make a person dislike me or not give me a legitimate shot based solely off of a trait I can’t change.

The optimist in me wants to say race relations will change because I just don’t like to accept that there is that much evil and hate in the world we live in. The realist in me feels like I won’t see this change in my lifetime because, as far as we feel we have come, many of the things that still occur remind me that we have so far to travel.

The uprising helped me understand the great disparity between those who have and those who do not. I can remember coming home for the summer in 2001 and hearing my friends and family talk about what it felt like being here and how angry people were because of what happened. It made me question what I was doing at prep school around a bunch of people who didn’t look like me and who did not have a clue of how life was for me as a little Black boy who could have easily been Timothy Thomas.


2001: A student at Kent State University, he spoke with Cincinnati Magazine about his life as a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings.
NOW: Television news anchor in Houston and host of Daddy Duty 365, a podcast about celebrity fathers

Photograph by Colin Kirkpatrick

A lot has changed for Black people in 20 years, but a lot hasn’t changed. Yes, it may be easier to get a job that you are qualified for and people will not discriminate against you when you walk into most stores. We have had a Black president and a Black vice president, but we still have a lot further to go. Unarmed Black people are still being killed at an alarming rate that’s higher than any other ethnic community. I’m still afraid to get pulled over by the police. These are sad realities, but it’s a way of life that I have become accustomed to. However, I pray my kids don’t have to.

I definitely think race relations in America will change from what they are today. Things will get better, and change will come. I hope and pray Dr. King’s dream will come true. It’s going to take each and every one of us, however, to do our part and empower that change we want to see in the world. We have to—and this will be difficult for many—be willing to talk about and acknowledge the pain and anger from this country’s past. Then we can grow to a place of reconciliation. We must stop acting as if injustices like what happened to Timothy Thomas didn’t happen. It is our responsibility to acknowledge the wrong this country has done and learn from it. If we don’t, it will repeat itself.

I’m one of those people who has always hoped for a better human race. I know we have it within all of us to do better. We just have to do the work to get better. Still today, with the BLM movement, we’re tired of the unfair and dehumanizing treatments our communities are experiencing. I’m still hopeful, now that our voices are being heard, that systematic changes will be made from the inside out.


2001: A rookie Cincinnati Police Department patrol officer
NOW: Neighborhood liaison unit officer for Cincinnati Police Department’s District 1, living on the east side

Photograph by Heritage Portraits & Albums

I’ll tell you that, back in 2001, policing experiences and protocols and procedures were very, very outdated. So outdated, if we’re looking at 2001 from 2021, which is why the U.S. Department of Justice came in and gave us parameters of where we needed to be to create a more fair and impartial police department. They gave us 12 standards [of policing], and the department abides by these 12 standards. Back in 2001, we didn’t have that.

I always talk to the family, Hey, do this and that when you’re at a traffic stop. I don’t necessarily need to harp on that because it’s a) ingrained, but b) I know that this is what officers are looking for [at a traffic stop], because we all operate under that same standard and policy because of what we went through back in 2001.

When that all transpired in 2001, it shocked me. Sitting in the Cincinnati Police Academy at the time, you could always hear a buzz, a hum, someone counting because we’re doing pushups, a radio, someone teaching. All of that was happening. And then roughly at 2 p.m. on April 10, it just got so eerie because it was quiet. As a recruit, I didn’t know what was going on. And then we were thrust into the civil unrest.

Society has its bar of what being Black looks like, and I believe it’s changed a little from 2001 until now, but not a lot. There’s vast room for improvement. I do believe we’re starting to shift toward improving. Meaning if we have transparency, if we have vulnerability, we’ll have the conversation that’s needed for us to be more positive.

It’s going to take a lot of tough conversations. It’s going to take a lot of change from both sides. But if we can come to some agreement and say, Hey, you know what? I didn’t like this. You didn’t like this, we can agree on not liking this and we pack and put it away and move forward. We don’t do that very well at this point.

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