Why Juneteenth Matters

These local leaders helped turn a Civil War–era remembrance day into a community-wide celebration for all.
Lydia Morgan is photographed on April 30, 2024, at Kennedy Heights Arts Center.

Photograph by Asa Featherstone, IV

Lydia Morgan came home to Cincinnati from a trip to Phoenix, Arizona, in 1986, and couldn’t wait to call her friends. While away, she’d happened upon her first Juneteenth celebration in a city park and was floored.

“It felt like a family reunion,” Morgan recalls. “Everybody was talking and laughing with each other, and there were Native Americans, Caucasians, and African Americans for sure. We came home, and I was calling all these people, telling them about celebrating the end of slavery. I thought, Surely, they don’t know.”

And 38 years ago, only a few people knew about Juneteenth, particularly her friends from the South. Some told her they’d celebrated as kids. Some traveled to their hometowns each year to gather with family. Others commemorated the day privately in their homes. “And you never told anybody?” Morgan recalls saying. “But this is so important.”

Morgan, a teacher in Blue Ash, knew that not all enslaved persons taken to the U.S. from Africa by European settlers were immediately set free when president Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. But she didn’t know much about June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, and ordered the final quarter million enslaved people in the U.S. be freed, almost two and a half years after emancipation went into effect.

Morgan and her husband Noel thought Cincinnati should celebrate this part of history, too, and organized the first Juneteenth Festival in a park near their home in Kennedy Heights in 1988. Their 37th annual event, now held in Eden Park, returns this month with music, food, historic reenactors, a supervised children’s area with a petting zoo, and much more.

Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021 and, apart from the event in Eden Park, there are other ways to join the celebration this year. They include the Juneteenth Block Party at The Banks; the Juneteenth Parade, starting in the West End and ending at City Hall; a special day planned at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center; and ceremonies raising the Juneteenth flag at government buildings.

The Cincinnatians who organize these various celebrations all come to Juneteenth from different perspectives and for different reasons. They say there’s no one specific way to mark the holiday—they just hope you will, because there’s something for everyone of all ages.

“This isn’t just a Black thing,” says Morgan. “This is American history. We want to see everyone there.”

Trudy Gaba of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (left) and Raven Fulton of Paloozanoire.

Photographs by Asa Featherstone, IV

Crystal Kendrick was born in Cincinnati and has lived her entire adult life here, but she jokes that she can’t answer “the high school question” because she was raised in Philadelphia, where she first celebrated Juneteenth. “It fell during summer break, so we were off school,” she says. “My neighborhood always had large parades and events. I remember eating red foods. It was a moment of education because we learned a lot of things there we weren’t learning in school.”

For example, on the first anniversary of Jubilee Day, or Emancipation Day, as Juneteenth was first called, freedmen and freedwomen celebrated with red foods like strawberries, red beans and rice, and barbecue. Red is a symbol of strength, spirituality, life, and death in West Africa, from which their ancestors had been brutally taken 200 years prior. An estimated 4 million people were enslaved in the U.S. when Lincoln issued his proclamation, each treated like property, with family members sold and often separated to live on different plantations. It was illegal to teach an enslaved person to read or write, and they couldn’t own a house or property. History shows many enslaved people were treated far worse.

Today, Kendrick is the owner of The Voice of Your Customer, a marketing and consulting firm she established in 2007 to help businesses and government agencies better engage with hard-to-reach and underserved populations. In 2016, she launched The Voice of Black Cincinnati, a news and events website, to educate, recognize, and create opportunities for African Americans in the Cincinnati region. “There was an effort to recruit and retain Black talent in Cincinnati and I wanted to support and be a part of that,” she says. “And so we brought all those resources together and created a media company that really doesn’t do news. We do information.”

Kendrick’s lists include Black-owned businesses, job postings, scholarships for minority students, a community calendar, and history stories about individuals such as Cincinnati’s first Black councilman, Frank A.B. Hall, or Marie Williams, known as Madame Selika, who grew up here and became the first Black artist to perform at the White House.

Kendrick supports a number of partners and creates a lot of content around Juneteenth. “Leading up to it and the day of, I’m thinking, Oh my gosh, am I going to get any sleep?” she says. “Then I think about what Juneteenth means.”

She knows the work is worth it, because the more she learns about slavery and the treatment of African Americans through history the more strongly she feels about putting her efforts into commemorating this part of America’s past and how it connects to the present. “We do a lot of work in our marketing company around health disparities, financial disparities, things of that nature,” says Kendrick.

“I think about some of the things that happened during slavery that still are visible in our society today, and I’m hopeful that others will focus on the meaning of why this day, this time, and this period are so important.”

Ricardo Grant felt he needed to make a difference after seeing the viral video of George Floyd’s murder, when a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck as George pleaded I can’t breathe! and cried out for his mother. Three months prior, Louisville police had shot and killed Breonna Taylor during a botched raid on her apartment. And his community was still reeling from COVID-19, which disproportionately impacted African Americans.

“Protesting was a big deal and obviously super beneficial in moving the needle along, but I felt like there was something else we could do as a people,” says Grant, an entrepreneur with several businesses in Over-the-Rhine and downtown, including the Gallery at Gumbo barbershop/art gallery, Cinema social club, and LoVe on Fourth. “What we really wanted to do was just give people a break and an opportunity to connect.”

This was 2020, and Grant had recently cofounded Paloozanoire, an organization focused on enriching the lives of people of color throughout the Midwest. The group had experience coordinating and hosting events. Why not something for Juneteenth?

“Rico called me up and said, We need to do something spontaneous,” says Paloozanoire Executive Director Raven Fulton. “We put the first event together in 72 hours.” Supporters stepped up big time, Grant says, and their first Juneteenth Block Party drew 1,000 people.

Since then, the Juneteenth Block Party has been held at The Banks between the sports stadiums and has grown quickly. Last year, an estimated 15,000 people came out to dance, eat from food trucks, and visit a variety of booths and activities. The event will be bigger and better this year, Fulton says, and will feature celebrity host Desi Banks— a comedian, actor, and influencer with 8.8 million Instagram followers—as well as a “Homecoming”–themed area with representation from regional universities and Black fraternities and sororities.

The festival was Fulton’s first experience celebrating Juneteenth, as she wasn’t aware of it growing up in West Chester Township or while attending Kent State University. “In college, I might have heard it mentioned, but nobody sat me down and said, This is when slavery really ended,” she says. “The fact that we’re texting each other Happy Juneteenth! and it’s become a national holiday is healing for the inner child in me that did not know about Juneteenth—now I get to properly celebrate it and know about it as an adult. And our location on Freedom Way on the Ohio River, where enslaved people crossed into freedom? We really are living our ancestors’ wildest dreams.”

Grant, who grew up in Avondale and lives downtown, was an Africana Studies minor in college when he learned about Juneteenth, so he likes to use the Block Party as an opportunity to educate. “We want to dance and eat and have a good time,” he says, “but there is a responsibility to educate the 6- and 7-year-olds and the 12- and 13-year-olds who are there as to exactly what’s going on.”

Photograph courtesy Lydia Morgan

Juneteenth Historical Timeline

JUNE 7, 1979
Texas becomes the first state to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday

The 13th Amendment is passed, abolishing slavery in the U.S.

JUNE 19, 1865
General Granger arrives in Texas and delivers news that all slaves are free

APRIL 9, 1865
Robert E. Lee surrenders in Virginia

JANUARY 1, 1863
President Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation

The Juneteenth flag is created by Ben Haith

JUNE 17, 2021
President Biden and Ohio Governor DeWine recognize Juneteenth as a national and state holiday

Patrice Logan will once again lead Cincinnati’s Juneteenth Parade out of love. Love for her dear friend, Melinda Brown, who founded the parade, and love for the city’s young people. Brown, known as Meme, died unexpectedly in late 2022, but Logan and a small but mighty team decided to keep the event going in her honor. “Meme brought us in on the idea of creating something to celebrate the youth in our community and make them more aware of the importance of Juneteenth,” says Logan, a producer with the multimedia production company PowrGurlz Entertainment.

This year, there are roughly 50 entries in the parade, which starts in the West End at 10 a.m. June 16 and winds its way to City Hall. Participants include local youth bands, dance groups, high schools, area businesses, and government representatives and agencies, says Logan, who grew up in Winton Terrace and now lives in Finneytown. She used to celebrate Juneteenth at home with her family, but the parade opens the door to gather with her entire community and highlight young people’s accomplishments and talents. “There are a lot of different things going on now for Juneteenth, and I love that,” she says. “It’s about connecting and networking.”

Now that Juneteenth has become a federally recognized holiday, there is an opportunity for increased solidarity in Black culture and in wider American culture as well, says Cassandra Jones, an assistant professor in Africana Studies at the University of Cincinnati.

Jones grew up in Maumee, Ohio, and earned a doctorate in American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University, but her awareness of Juneteenth didn’t happen until she moved to South Carolina in 2011 for a teaching job at University of South Carolina Upstate. “This was Spartanburg, South Carolina, and Juneteenth was sort of a cultural holiday,” she says. “But it was also a time when the Confederate flag still flew in front of the state capitol.”

Remnants of slavery were all around her in South Carolina. Some of her students’ last names matched the names of the old plantations she passed by in her car (slaves often were given their owners’ surnames), and the city of Spartanburg erected a plaque commemorating the group of Black youth who orchestrated a Civil Rights sit-in at an all-white lunch counter in 1960.

“Black American history is American history. It’s not ancillary to American history,” says Jones. “Although, when we think about how education works in America, Black history oftentimes is an elective course that students have to opt into.”

As a Black woman, she’s heartened that Juneteenth has become a federal holiday and appreciates the solidarity it fosters. “These are historical events that we can all take pride in,” says Jones. “It’s a moment of moving past slavery but also not forgetting it, because we still do live with the consequences of that system every day in terms of stereotypes and wave after wave of policies that recreate Black people’s inability to access wealth and education.”

Juneteenth is first and foremost a joyful, momentous occasion, says Woodrow “Woody” Keown Jr., president of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and that’s the thrust of the organization’s full-day event on June 19. But there will also be themes focusing on health equity and economic opportunity. According to the 2022 Health Equity Report for Hamilton County, Black residents have a 31 percent higher mortality rate and 184 percent higher poverty rate than white residents. Between 2010 and 2019, income inequality rose by 1.6 percent. The median income in Black Cincinnati households was $30,850 compared to $71,531 in white households in 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Surely we’ve made a lot of progress,” says Keown, “but we also know that there’s a lot of work to be done. And that gives me the inspiration to continue to fight for things like voting rights that are under attack right now.”

The event will be community focused and intergenerational, says Trudy Gaba, the Freedom Center’s social justice curator. “Juneteenth is a recognition of our ancestors who fought courageously for their freedom,” she says. “It’s a day to recognize that many of us would not be standing here without that courage and that pursuit. It’s a day of immense gratitude for that journey.”

Morgan grew up 30 miles from the ocean in North Carolina, when there were white beaches and Black beaches, “as if all the water wasn’t out there mingling together.” During the 1980s and 1990s she felt like a lot of progress was being made regarding race relations and equality, but lately it seems that society is backpedaling.

“I didn’t think I would ever have to have ‘the talk’ with my son,” says Morgan. “The one about if you’re stopped by the police you do whatever they tell you, because I can get you out of jail but I can’t get you out of dead. I got that from my father—it’s what he would tell my brothers. But it was kind of sad to have that kind of a talk. Now I think I’ll have to have the talk with my grandchildren.”

Cincinnati’s annual Juneteenth Festival

Photograph courtesy Lydia Morgan

Choose Your Celebration

Fifth Annual Juneteenth Block Party
A free event that showcases freedom and the evolution of Black culture while welcoming inclusivity. Features music, food, and more. June 15, 4–11 p.m., The Banks, downtown.

Wade in the Water
A participatory dance along the Ohio River acknowledges the significance of water to the 400-plus-year trek into and beyond enslavement. June 9, 2–4 p.m., Smale Riverfront Park, downtown.

37th Annual Juneteenth Festival
A free event with two stages of live music, shopping, art, food, and supervised children’s area. June 15, noon–9 p.m., Mirror Lake, Eden Park.

Juneteenth Festival Father’s Day Concert
Features a variety of inspirational spiritual music and praise dancing. June 16, 2–6 p.m., Seasongood Pavilion, Eden Park.

Juneteenth Jubilee
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center hosts a free festival complete with live music, food trucks, a community market, and a march to the Ohio River. June 19, 10 a.m.–6:30 p.m., 50 E. Freedom Way, downtown.

Third Annual Urban League Juneteenth Celebration
The block party celebration features food, kids activities, and giveaways and honors the past, celebrates the present, and looks forward to a brighter future. June 19, 10 a.m.-1 p.m., Urban League Headquarters, 3458 Reading Road, Avondale.

Despite this stark, everyday reality, Juneteenth celebrations offer an annual opportunity to collectively recognize the contributions and enduring spirit of what African Americans have brought to America’s table. “People say to me, Should I really go to Juneteenth?” says Morgan. “And I reply, Are you American? Wait, you don’t even need to be American. You can be anything!

Grant says the addition of various options to celebrate Juneteenth symbolizes growth, and of course he’d like everyone to make it to his event or the one in Eden Park, but he knows some people will have limitations.

“There are so many who don’t have the financial means to travel to Cincinnati to come and celebrate Juneteenth, but we want to see a Juneteenth Block Party, a Juneteenth Festival, a Juneteenth whatever in every city across the country,” says Grant. “If there’s a neighbor who’s celebrating it, make sure you’re there. What we need is everyone to support it in their own unique way.”

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