Columbus hosts the Ohio Black Expo at Genoa Park over Memorial Day weekend

For the first time in nearly 30 years, the Ohio Black Expo will return – in person – to Columbus over Memorial Day weekend.

The four-day affair will center black life, business and culture through workshops, networking opportunities, entertainment and other events.

The celebration kicks off Thursday at 9 a.m. with a free business conference at Venture Suite in King-Lincoln/Bronzeville, and culminates with the Riverfront Culture Fest, which runs Saturday through Sunday at Genoa Park. The lineup includes nationally acclaimed musicians Kelly Price and Rotimi, as well as local artists including J Rawls, Paisha Thomas, TrigNO and the Flex Crew.

Festival tickets are $20 for one day and $30 for both days. More information, including a full exhibition schedule, can be found at ohioblackexpo.com.

Organizers have booked more than 100 Ohio-based vendors and expect between 10,000 and 20,000 attendees. The City of Columbus, Spectrum and Huntington Bancshares are among the many sponsors. And the proceeds will benefit youth and community programs.

Ohio Black Expo founder and board chair Rhonda Robinson said one of her main goals was to provide exposure to black-owned businesses.

“Our story involves black businesses,” said Robinson, 70, of the East Side. “We always had it, but we didn’t always recognize it. It is important that our young people know where our black businesses are and support them. »

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Robinson recognized this need in 1980 when she registered over 70 vendors for the Columbus Black Convention. The following year, she created the Columbus Black Expo, which was held at Focal Point Park in Mount Vernon Plaza on the Near East Side for seven years.

As she attracted more vendors and attendees from across the state, she changed the name to Ohio Black Expo and moved the event to the Franklin County Veterans Memorial Downtown, where it drew over 30,000 people. She hosted the celebration in Dayton in 1992 and in Cincinnati for the next two years before retiring.

A crowd is pictured at a Columbus Black Expo event in the mid-1980s, which is now known as the Ohio Black Expo.

Robinson said she observed a continued need for the event and was inspired to bring it back in 2020 before the pandemic hit. Instead, she’s pivoted to hosting a virtual conference for the past two years.

Now that the Ohio Black Expo is officially back, she is passing the torch to Sherri Hamilton, who is the president and CEO.

Hamilton said she was impressed with what Robinson was able to accomplish early on.

“I’m blown away to be able to do this without the internet, without social media, without a cellphone,” said Hamilton, 54, from the East Side, who works in tech as a full stack developer. “It’s amazing. She literally went door to door and found these great vendors. (They) were so happy to have the exhibit. And the people there were so happy to learn about the new black businesses.

Although technology has helped Black-owned businesses, Hamilton said the need for marketing assistance persists.

And even though the 2020 racial justice uprising shone a light on black-owned businesses, it’s still not enough, she added.

“It’s always an incredible challenge,” she said. “We are not supporting black businesses at the level that we should.”

Donald Dennis, Huntington’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion, also stressed the importance of helping Black-owned businesses amid the pandemic.

“As the first volume SBA lender in the country, we really appreciate the needs of small businesses to get back to where they were before March 2020, especially Black and minority-owned businesses,” he said. he declares. “We know these companies are having a much harder time overcoming some historical downsides and we are working to help them get back to pre-pandemic levels.”

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Dennis said Huntington decided to sponsor the exhibit because its mission aligned with the company’s efforts to engage communities of color, which are historically underserved by banking institutions.

Branden Jones, co-CEO of Venture Suite, said his team jumped at the chance to host the expo’s business conference and other workshops.

“Now is the time to come together to become customers and business partners,” said Jones, 36, of Bexley, also a co-founder of Color Coded Labs and BLK Hack technology initiatives. “Exhibitions are important because you can put all the businesses and all the services and all the things that black people have to offer in one space to come together. Everyone who starts a business wants to succeed, but not everyone has access to the same resources and tools.

The conference will feature a myriad of speakers, including Adam Troy, director of engagement for the Community of Caring Development Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the New Salem Baptist Church in North Linden.

“I’m old enough to remember when the first (show) was,” Troy said. “Having the opportunity to just walk down the street and watch all this cultural energy was inspiring. And so, I always felt the need to support Black Expo’s return if, for nothing else, to be able to donate to this next generation that same kind of feeling.

The exhibit will also hand out awards to several special guests with ties to Ohio, including singer Shirley Murdock, college basketball player Zia Cooke, entrepreneur and author LaRese Purnell and gymnast Nia Dennis.

Hamilton said she and Robinson tried to create an event that appeals to more than one segment of the black community.

“It’s really for everyone,” she said. “Our overall mission is to improve the quality of life for black people in Ohio.”

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