Juneteenth in Cincinnati: How we’re celebrating in 2021

Lydia Morgan didn’t know what Juneteenth was until she was in her 30s.

As a child, she remembers asking her mother why our country celebrated July 4th but not the end of slavery. Her mom always deflected the question.

Her first Juneteenth celebration was in Phoenix while her husband was at a conference. Another spouse who previously performed at ceremonies invited her to join.

“Then when I went, it was a tiny, tiny festival and everyone was so very, very friendly,” Morgan says, adding that the small group was also diverse. “It wasn’t anything truly spectacular except to my heart.”

“This is a United States history holiday,” she continues. “It is not a black holiday. We did not make it up.”

The event reminded her of family reunions and inspired her to organize a Cincinnati celebration, which she has been in charge of for its entire 34 years.

She explains that the first year was a challenge. Although she had community members and the Kennedy Heights Community Council on board, the inaugural event, held at Daniel Drake Park, was not entirely welcome.

When Cincinnati police caught wind of the event — which attracted 1,500 attendees — they told Morgan and the organizers that they needed at least 13 officers working security.

But there wasn’t any money to pay them.

Still, the 13 cops showed up and demanded payment, which wasn’t available. They insisted, in Morgan’s words, that the people gathered at the event needed security because “people would be urinating where others eat.”

She denied this and the first Cincinnati Juneteenth was peaceful, but it gave her an idea of how the city would handle future celebrations.

Years later, the event has grown, changed, and attracted a bigger crowd. But the pandemic forced everything online in 2020. This year, Morgan is looking forward to both in-person and virtual events, and a few of them are new — like Wade in the Water, coming up this weekend, on June 13th at the Cincinnati bank of the Ohio River.

The performance, says Morgan, is simple but powerful.

“We’re acknowledging the role that water has played in enslavement and freedom,” she says. “In explaining it, we start out with the Red Sea and how [it] was parted (to usher Israelites to freedom).

“If the Atlantic Ocean had been anywhere else, they couldn’t have gotten people over here,” she continues. “Rivers, lakes, and swamps were the obstacles they had to get across to get to freedom.”

And then there were the firehoses used to keep people of color from marching for their lives.

Participants who sign up through Eventbrite will also receive freedom papers to mark the symbolism of our country’s founders.

This year, there are also three flag raisings — with the hopes to attract more businesses to put up the Juneteenth flag in years to come.

The flag, Morgan says, “was actually designed by a group of people in the ’50s or ’60s who met for the purpose of building a Juneteenth foundation that had one of its purposes to make it a national holiday.”

Activist Ben Haith (and founder of the national Juneteenth Celebration Foundation) designed the flag in 1997 with the help of Boston-based illustrator Lisa Jeanne Graf. Although it was revised in 2000 to include the date of emancipation (June 19, 1965), the colors have remained the same: red, white, and blue, a reminder that slaves and their descendants who were and are Americans.

Now, the event takes on new meaning as we’ve had a year of police brutality and false information about the Black Lives Matter movement. And for those reasons, Morgan wants us to know that she sees this as a nation-wide event — one that will be available online to all who are interested — and something that she hopes will continue to grow in the coming years.

“The one thing we want to end it with is that you are free to be the person you were meant to be,” she says. “If you are trying to hold me back, you are trying to hold both of us back.”
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Read more articles by Jessica Esemplare.

Jessica Esemplare is the managing editor of Soapbox Cincinnati and a graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Shortly after completing her degree in magazine journalism, she began covering local and regional topics at The Cincinnati Herald and, later, as an editor at Ohio Magazine. Her writing has also been featured in U.S. News and World Report.