News: Ujima Gets the Ax

City funds for African-American event diverted to Jazz festival

Jymi Bolden

In recent years, the Jazz festival has been a flash point for racial conflict, as when downtown restaurants closed their doors.

Ujima Cinci-Bration, the free downtown celebration of African-American heritage, has ended.

Cincinnati City Council has cut funding for Ujima and given the money to the promoters of the annual Jazz festival at Cinergy Field instead. Councilwoman Alicia Reece proposed the change.

This year a vendors' market will set up near the Jazz festival and Swifton Commons will be the site of a free celebration the Saturday of the festival.

"It won't be called Ujima, no," Reece says. "The difference is it will be in the African-American community at Swifton (Commons). The new, unique thing is we're connecting the festival to the neighborhood. I don't think the name is so important."

The cancellation of Ujima is a blow to efforts to stimulate diversity in Cincinnati, according to the Rev. Damon Lynch III, pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church. Ujima gave people of all backgrounds a chance to celebrate African-American culture, he says.

"Our downtown diversity is not that great," Lynch says. "We party segregatedly. I think the demise of Ujima is sad. I think when you lose something like Ujima it's hard to get that back."

Reece endorses 'trickle down'
The Santangelo Group Inc., which once again owns the Jazz festival, asked the city for financial help. City council approved a $150,000 grant and a $75,000 loan to promote the concerts, accompanying events and the city.

Reece says the Jazz festival, a fixture in Cincinnati for more than 30 years, has never received city funds before. If the city didn't take the money that had been going to Ujima and use it instead to prop up the Jazz festival, both events would have been lost, she says.

"Because of the unrest, people didn't buy tickets and last year was their worst year," Reece says.

Extensive marketing in six states goes into bringing people to the Jazz festival, according to Joe Santangelo, its producer. Coors will not be a sponsor of the Jazz festival this year, according to the Santangelo Group.

"The festival spends in excess of $100,000 just on the radio," he says.

The Santangelo Group, which has never been involved in Ujima, hopes the festivities at Swifton Commons and the vendors' market next to the stadium will involve local merchants — something Ujima did not.

"We're going to go after the local food people first," Santangelo says. "Our attempt is to keep as much of the money in Cincinnati as we can."

Reece says that, when the $17 million generated by the Jazz festival comes into the city, African Americans will get a piece of the pie. The Jazz festival generates the most money of all the festivals in the city, she says.

"That money is never expanded in the marketplace to be able to trickle down to small- and minority-owned businesses," she says.

Reece hopes that will change this year, but Lynch is skeptical.

"I don't think we've been that successful in the past to get conventioneers or tourism money to flow north of Central Parkway," he says. "This year it will be a wait and see."

Lynch wants peace
Santangelo is optimistic.

"I'm kind of excited that we're going to have more or less a unified kind of thing," he says. "It's kind of a nice, unified thing that we're going to end up doing and it's all under the banner of the city of Cincinnati."

But his plans inevitably point to issues that in the past have turned the Jazz festival and Ujima into a point of racial conflict. Santangelo says he wants to involve downtown restaurants on a list to show people where they can eat while visiting the Jazz festival.

In past years, downtown restaurants closed during Ujima and the Jazz festival, leading to charges of discrimination against African Americans. The Black United Front formed in 2000 after restaurants closed their doors while tens of thousands of blacks were downtown for Ujima and the Jazz festival.

William Kirkland is president of the African American Cultural Commission, one of several groups calling for a nationwide boycott of the Jazz festival.

"I understand that as an elected official (Reece) has a fiduciary responsibility to all the citizens with regard to the city's economic vitality," Kirkland says.

But he wants Reece and Mayor Charlie Luken to address the core of problems in the city.

"Until they do, the boycott will continue," Kirkland says. "In fact, you're going to see it escalate. The people in April were not rebelling for a lack of a party. They were crying out for justice."

Injustice is evident during the Jazz festival, according to Kirkland.

"This is the festival that attracts more African-Americans from outside of the city, so this is the festival where African-Americans receive the least respect," he says. "All of the dynamics are in place for Cincinnati to be the most livable city again — except justice."

Ironically, the very point of Ujima was to unite people, according to Lynch.

"Ujima started after the one year that there was violence at the festival," he says.

Ujima was the vision of Lynch's friend Mark Pastor, with a goal to "bring some peace to the streets."

Now the city's emphasis has shifted to bringing some money to the streets.

"The whole idea was to have something for people to do that come to the festival," Santangelo says.

But the festivities need to include events for more than just the people buying tickets to the Jazz festival, according to Eric Browne, a member of the board of the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky African-American Chamber of Commerce.

"I think if there's a celebration that had the same ownership by the African-American community, the same pomp and circumstance for the African-American community, I think they'd feel fulfilled," Browne says.

But it won't be Ujima.

"At this point we don't have full funding to do it, and Ujima is a trademark of the chamber," Browne says. "There may be a celebration, but I don't know if it's going to be called Ujima."

Browne says the chamber is exploring alternative funding.

"It's an event we would hope that would continue," he says.

Lynch points to the deeper implications of the city's decision to end funding for Ujima.

"I think you can see through what's taking place," he says. "I think right now the African-American community is slighted by a lot more than that. All this talk about healing becomes a farce. It becomes a joke." ©

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