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Juneteenth: Black Cowboys and Buffalo Soldiers Helping Communities Connect

By Jeffrey L. Stec, J.D.

The first time it happened was 1975, the year Lydia Morgan arrived in Cincinnati with her husband, who was recruited by the Woman’s City Club to head the City of Cincinnati’s consumer protection agency.  She was walking her baby in a stroller down Montgomery road.  Having grown-up in pre-integration South, she was surprised to hear the word for the first time up North:  “Get out of the road, nigger!”  In one way or the other, Lydia Morgan has been trying to heal this community’s racial divide ever since.

Forty years later, Lydia hadn’t heard of the Montford Point Marines—the first African Americans to integrate the Marine Corp in 1941.  Many had volunteered for duty only to undergo basic training at segregated Camp Montford Point near Jacksonville, North Carolina.  These recruits—forced to clear a snake-infested swamp just to build the camp, then training in unsanitary and substandard conditions—stuck it out and honorably served in the Pacific despite the disillusionment caused by how they were treated by their own government.

To Lydia Morgan, founder and organizer of Cincinnati’s Juneteenth Celebration, the story of the Montford Point Marines goes way beyond historical curiosity.  It’s a living lesson in how today’s Black community might persevere and stay hopefully patriotic despite our country’s ongoing racial challenges.  That sense of applied history is just one way our local Juneteenth separates itself from other festivals and celebrations (how often do Americans seek to learn something valuable while watching fireworks on July 4th?).

Beginning with its 25th anniversary four years ago, Lydia and her broad community team began to infuse Juneteenth with a community organizer’s mindset.  In partnership with the Kennedy Arts Center, Juneteenth shifted the conversation with an exhibit entitled “Beyond Emancipation”, a discussion of the barriers to true freedom.  In subsequent years, the Cincinnati Herald became a partner by including Black History Month facts and stories.

This year’s thematic framework is from a book titled “Slavery by Another Name”:

Slavery by Another Name challenges the belief that slavery in this country ended with the Emancipation Proclamation.  Even as chattel slavery came to an end in the South in 1865, thousands of African Americans and some poor whites were pulled back into forced labor with shocking force and brutality.

This winter and spring, Juneteenth and Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) are partnering to host three panel discussions that explore how the roots of slavery remain in many of our social and governmental structures, from inequities in the judicial system to re-entry programs for convicted felons to housing for low income residents.

Lydia operates from the premise that “If you don’t know and celebrate your history, they will cut you out of the history books.”  She cites an example of historical revisionism in action:  how the mainstream press reports that President Obama “has divided the country” rather than stating that Congressional Republicans have blocked his initiatives without any substantive attempt at compromise.  Moreover, mainstream culture, media and government support the common narrative that competition, scarcity, consumption and acquisition are the natural order—when these are really just social fictions many countries refuse to embrace.

Juneteenth, therefore, asks people to learn and think critically:  to remember the past, question the present, and define their own future.  This year Black Cowboys, civil war re-enactors, and Buffalo Soldiers will all contribute to this process of learning and reflection.

Just as fundamentally, Juneteenth challenges our beliefs about modern urban communities by re-telling the story rural southern values.  Lydia grew up on a family farm in North Carolina, graduating in 1966 (after North Carolina integrated their schools in 1965).  She remembers that both the white and black high schools were burned down so that no one would be on another’s turf when the schools were integrated.  She also remembers neighbors helping each other tend to their farms—and a woman’s quilting circle that went house-to-house hanging cloth from ceilings.

Consequently, Juneteenth has always stood for the possibility that communities can support themselves when people are connected and committed to each other.  “Families working together don’t have to ask for money,” says Lydia.  Every year Juneteenth is short on grant money, but somehow community members step up and make the celebration happen.  Hot dogs and soda are $1 so everyone can get something to eat, entertainers play for free, and hundreds contribute their gifts to make the cause happen.

A more communal life comes to be when a group of citizens, over time, decides what they must invent to build a neighborhood.  In this way, neighborhood connections become a movement.  This is how culture is created.  P. Block, An Other Kingdom, 2016.

Under Lydia’s guidance, Juneteenth is indeed a movement.  The festival includes a range of non-profits groups who set-up booths and promote their services.  But this is not a hand-out philosophy, with the festival focusing on job training, summer youth employment, child educational advocacy, and other proactive programs.  By placing these programs in the context of communal effort, values and history, Juneteenth reinforces the notion that communities must actively care for their own, not wait to be served by professionals.   In the end, Lydia believes that Juneteenth creates connections among Blacks that over time serve their communities better than any social service organization.

And these community connections extend well-beyond Juneteenth weekend.  Many people leverage the Juneteenth network to improve their daily community work.  Lydia’s church (among many other participating congregations) gathers parents around the neighborhood to share a meal and discuss parenting, budgeting or schooling while dinner cooks in the oven – no professionals necessary.   They make sure they share a meal with the children, because so many poor kids get their food from somewhere other than home; eating at school twice a day and church on the weekend often eliminates the bonding and learning of the family dinner table.

By making life lighter through celebration and cooperation, the Juneteenth festival—including the planning process behind it and the impact paid forward—provides a unique collective experience that teaches all of us important lessons for a world of failing systems.  At one point, Lydia references the slow food movement:  just as dinner is an excuse for collective nurturing, Juneteenth is about making connections that will feed the Black community all year long.

 

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