Judith Cebula grew up in Cincinnati, spending most of her school years living in Kennedy Heights. Her parents, Jim and Maria, moved to the city when her dad was a graduate history student at the University of Cincinnati. They wanted not only to live in the city but also to provide an integrated environment for their children. Judy has an older sister, Anne. Dan Beaver, Jim’s graduate advisor in the history department, recommended his Kennedy Heights neighborhood as a wonderful place to live.
Judy experienced multi-ethnic classes at Losantiville Elementary School in nearby Golf Manor and again at Walnut Hills High School. Anne attended Kennedy Heights Elementary School. When Judy entered college at Indiana University she wondered: where was the diversity that she had experienced in her early life?
She remembers playing around the benches and old fountains of the long-gone Yononte Inn, a stone’s throw from her family home on Davenant Avenue, buying candy bars and pop at the Redwood Carry Out on Woodford, attending the Wolfes’ legendary neighborhood Christmas parties and having fun on Halloween at the Holms’ house on Kinoll.
In 1993, Judy wrote an article for the Cincinnati Post, “Kennedy Heights experiment” as a resident of Indianapolis and a reporter for The Indianapolis News. She wrote, “When people ask me where I’m from, I answer with a quiet pride. I’m from Cincinnati. Then they want to talk about Marge Schott and Robert Mapplethorpe and ‘the town without pity.’ And I realize I must tell them more about my city.
“I grew up in Kennedy Heights, a small northeastern Cincinnati neighborhood. It’s a place where black people and white people live without fears of falling property values and clashing cultural values.
“You see, Kennedy Heights likes diversity. Its 7,000 residents seek it, embrace it and wonder why other people don’t do the same.
“In July, my neighborhood commemorated 30 years of its experiment in racial harmony. And although I live 125 miles away in Indianapolis now, the tree-lined streets are on my mind and so are childhood memories of a black and white neighborhood that worked.
“It worked because Kennedy Heights always told prospective residents what it was. If you spotted a house for sale on Bantry or Redbank or Tyne or Wyatt, you’d see black children and white children in the streets, riding bikes together.
“If you showed up at a Kennedy Heights Community Council meeting, the faces would be brown and tan and ivory and pink.
“If you moved there, you would be prepared to be tolerant, understanding and part of the harmony.
“It began in 1963, the same year that Martin Luther King Jr. led the historic march on Washington. If the civil rights movement was a rare and beautiful window of opportunity, the people of Kennedy Heights seized it. They came together in a time when real estate agents were warning white people to sell their homes before the encroaching wave of black immigrants forced property values to fall.
“Instead of selling out, a handful of residents settled down. Those white people came together with black neighbors who wanted to preserve single-family dwellings in the neighborhood.
“They published newsletters to quash rumors. They fought unethical real estate agents by reporting them to city officials. They held block parties and summer picnics and later opened a cooperative nursery school. They raised children to know that integration is good.
“I was one of those children. I went to school with black and white kids, Jews and Christians. I played soccer on a losing team, but we black and white girls were beautiful on that field, nonetheless. We were part of the experiment. We were from Kennedy Heights.
“But these memories are a child’s view of things. As I ask questions now, I learn that lots of people did leave the neighborhood as the demographics changed. When I count the number of black families on the block where I grew up, I realize that there are whiter parts of Kennedy Heights and blacker parts, too.
“And I remember the old neighborhood school where white faces became rare. It closed 15 years ago.
“Three decades since the experiment began, it’s harder to be part of a diverse community. The window of tolerance and understanding that was the civil rights movement appears to have closed on us.
“But the kids who grew up in Kennedy Heights have taken parts of that place with us as we moved away from home. We question our new neighborhoods and cities. Why didn’t others grow up the way we did beholding integration as a precious gift?”
Judy values the way her parents modeled living in the neighborhood, establishing friendships and actively involved in the Community Council.
Maria was involved in social justice issues through her Catholic parishes St. Mark and later Bellarmine Chapel and taught children in special education at The Children’s Home in nearby Madisonville.
Jim was a history professor for nearly 40 years at Raymond Walters College campus of the University of Cincinnati. He viewed his relationship with the community through the lens that was well known for him-history. How did we (Kennedy Heights) get to where we are? Who were/are the people that made up the community in the past and the present? What were their backgrounds? How did that shape us? It was a natural that he would be the community historian.
Judy lives in downtown Indianapolis with her husband and 13-year-old daughter. She works as the communications director of Lilly Endowment Inc. Maria lives in Indianapolis, too. Jim died in 2009. Anne and her family live in Scotland and run a hotel and restaurant, The Anderson, near Inverness.
Two of Jim’s articles are on our website, www.kennedyheights.org: “Creating an Intentional Multiracial Community in Post WW II Cincinnati: The Kennedy Heights Experiment” that originally was published in Ohio Valley History 7, no. 3 (Fall 2007) 17. And, an article that originally appeared in the Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin 34 (Summer, 1976) 78, titled: “Kennedy Heights: A Fragmented Hilltop Suburb”. Access: click on Resources→ PDF Archives.
Judy would like to believe the neighborhood will continue to thrive as people want to live in cities. She believes it is important to have ongoing conversations about race, and never take an integrated neighborhood for granted. Understanding the stories of our past our own personal narratives and the stories of families and communities - can help with those conversations. She wonders if new families are interested in our history. She hopes the answer is ‘yes’.
Interviewed by Christine Schumacher, September 6, 2014
Presented to KHCC, November 15, 2016
Last of the Elder Series interviews by Christine Schumacher,
24 interviews with 30 people