Cincinnati's Top African American Summer Festivals

Every summer, normally tranquil spaces in the Greater Cincinnati area like Paul Brown Stadium, Eden Park and Randolph Park in Northern Kentucky suddenly crowd with visitors – some in eccentric garb, some dressed for a night out for the club, and some only suited up for an afternoon of pool-swimming and outdoor-grilling, nearly all in varying states of merriment or disinhibition.
Many summer festival’s roots are deeply embedded in African American cultural history as a way of letting off steam and inverting the traditional social structure; solidifying the notion that bonding with family, friends and community is integral to a healthy society. 
African Americans have an oxymoronic tradition of celebrating the sacred moment of their freedom—whether from manumission, escape, legal abolition, or otherwise—in a very public way. Though liberty did not entirely mean equality, African Americans often referred to their new-found freedom as a turning point in their lives, evoking its arrival as a key moment that changed how they viewed themselves, their families, and their world.

Today, the essence of those past emancipation celebrations still exist, but have morphed into a celebration of culture and style. The celebrations come in a variety of forms and continue to permeate African American communities throughout the country.

Our Black Family Reunion

Locally, one of those celebrations is embodied by The Midwest Regional Black Family Reunion Celebration; one of Cincinnati's largest family-focused events. Since 1989, this three-day event has convened consumers, corporations and communities together to focus on the historic strengths and values of the African American family. This summer will mark the gathering’s 30th year and is projected to draw over 25,000 visitors from our region and throughout the nation.
“It is important that our community comes together to celebrate each other and our accomplishments,” says Tracey Artis, organizer of the Black Family Reunion and CEO of I Hear Music. “Each year we honor others. We are the only original BFR in the country that still has a three-day weekend.”

Cincinnati Music Festival

Vocalists crooning in the mid-summer’s night heat, throwing the crowd of shrieking fans into bouts of electrified allure. Lyrics about bumping, grinding and heaven and all-night partying, with synthesized ballads of regret, lost love and realism.
Welcome to the Cincinnati Music Festival.

Over the years, the Music Fest has hosted some of the most popular R&B acts of all time. Everyone from Patti LaBelle and Frankie Beverly to more current acts like Fantasia, Usher and Mary J. Bilge.

The festival has morphed from its 1962 induction as the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival to its current incarnation as a prodigious three-day celebration held each summer. Each year the event swooshes in over 50,000 visitors onto the city, making this event Cincinnati’s largest tourism event annually.

Tradition Sets In Surrounding Freedom

In more traditional celebrations, Emancipation Day and Juneteenth parades marking the legal end of slavery have emerged from an August First tradition among African American communities and Cincinnati continues the tradition.
Juneteenth has come to be known as the American holiday that commemorates the June 19, 1865, announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas, even though freedom to American slaves was declared by President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War on September 22, 1962 in his Emancipation Proclamation, with an effective date of January 1, 1863.

Today, emancipation celebrations, in a variety of forms, continue in African American communities throughout the country. Such commemorations continue to inspire new cultural events that are re-making public spaces in cities around the country and here in Cincinnati, we have not let that tradition go.

Since 1988, Cincinnati's Juneteenth tradition has ballooned from a small neighborhood gathering in Kennedy Heights’ Daniel Drake Park to an annual regional festival. The two-day event is jam-packed with diverse, family-centered activities with traditional storytelling and music filling the air.  Also, dozens of festival vendors offer a wide variety of food, clothing, art, folk crafts and ethnic literature.
Founding organizer, Lydia Morgan, weighs in on why she brought this celebration to the area.
“I grew up celebrating the Fourth of July; the nation’s Independence Day. While doing this, I began to wonder why we didn’t celebrate the end of slavery in the same way. Ever since then, it became very important to me to make sure that Emancipation day was celebrated.”

Old Timers Weekend Swings Strong in Northern Kentucky

Being a Covington native, it has been an annual tradition over the past three decades to pitch a tent in Randolph Park in Covington’s East side neighborhood and “camp out" the first weekend in August to celebrate Old Timers.

In 2017, while attending Old Timers, I overheard an interaction between a boy and his father. The young boy walked with his father away from the basketball court down 9th Street. The young boy spots a Covington Police cruiser. "I don't like the police," the child says. "They are going to shoot me."

His father laughed and turned to his son. “You should never be afraid of the police.”
These concerns innocently expressed are something that the annual celebration sets out to change; a misconception which permeates this traditionally African American Northern Kentucky community.
For over thirty summers, former Eastside residents from as far as Ohio, California, Texas, Florida and New York converge onto Randolph Park the first weekend in August for this neighborhood reunion.

“The event is so popular,” said David Housley, founding organizer of Old Timers, “that current residents routinely plan their summer vacations around it.”

Mr. Housley expects 3,000 to 4,000 people will stop by the L-shaped park this summer weekend for the sports tournaments and live music. Many will pitch tents and camp out for weekend.

The Circle Continues

The changing way of marking the passage of time and the way we celebrate family and community through gatherings and celebrations like, the aforementioned events, should not be seen as Black-only events. Rather, they represent a natural evolving of social conditions, and for these celebrations, though African American-centric in nature, should be viewed as a time to celebrate diversity and promote unity.

Summer Festival Schedule At-A-Glance

Cincinnati Music Festival
Paul Brown Stadium
July 26 - 27, 2018
Cincinnati Juneteenth Celebration
Eden Park, 2018
June 16-17

Midwest Black Family Reunion
Sawyer Point
August 17-19, 2018
Old Timers Weekend
Randolph Park, Covington
August 3-5, 2018

Read more articles by Kareem A. Simpson.

Raised in the inner city of Covington, Kentucky, Kareem Simpson is an author, innovator, community enthusiast, military veteran, serial entrepreneur, foodie and lover of all things creative.
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