Remembering Dr. S. Allen Counter
A week ago yesterday, Dr. S. Allen Counter, Harvard Medical School Professor of Neurology, Harvard Foundation Director, and Faculty Advisor to the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, passed away after a brief illness. The 2017-2018 Executive Board of Kuumba, on behalf of all members of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, both past and present, would like to extend its deepest condolences to the Counter Family, as well as all those who knew Dr. Counter as a colleague, an adviser, a mentor, and a friend. You are all in our thoughts and prayers.
To fully appreciate the indelible impact Dr. Counter had on Kuumba, one must travel back to the early 1970’s, when racial tensions on Harvard’s campus, and around the country, were especially high. The Civil Rights Movement was waning, the Black Power movement was peaking, and black students on Harvard’s campus were searching for safe spaces where they could fully and freely express their blackness without fear of critique or ridicule.
Amidst all this unrest and change, Dr. Counter, who had just earned a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University and a M.D. from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, came to Harvard, in 1970, to serve as a postdoctoral fellow and assistant neurophysiologist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. As he served in these roles, he integrated himself into campus life as a live-in dormitory directory, resident tutor, and biological sciences tutor. This early commitment to enriching the lives of students foreshadowed the integral role Dr. Counter would come to play in the lives of countless students, particularly students of color, throughout his time at Harvard.
Less than a year after Dr. Counter came to Harvard, a group of Black students came together to create a safe space where they could engage in the radical act of Black self-love, and celebrate Black creativity and spirituality in all its forms. This newly found group, the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, immediately became a source of strength and community for all who joined it. And when Mr. Robert Winfrey was tasked with leading the choir after the departure of Kuumba’s first director, Rev. Hubert Walters, in 1971, he immediately looked for Harvard faculty members who could provide resources and guidance to the choir when necessary. Dr. Counter, as Mr. Winfrey fondly recalls, quickly became one of those reliable sources of inspiration and assistance.
When Mr. Winfrey was preparing to retire as Kuumba’s director in 1997, he strongly encouraged the students to rename Kuumba’s “classic” events—the Black Arts Festival, the spring concert, and the winter concert—in honor of three men who had been integral to Kuumba’s effort to become an “important cultural entity on campus”: Walter J. Leonard (The Walter J. Leonard Black Arts Festival), Dean Archie C. Epps (The Dean Archie C. Epps Spring Concert), and Dr. S. Allen Counter (The Dr. S. Allen Counter Christmas Concert). In renaming Kuumba’s hallmark events in honor of these great men who have now all passed away, Mr. Winfrey felt that Kuumba could ensure they would always be “remembered by what they did for the Kuumba Singers.
Without a doubt, Dr. Counter will be remembered—by multiple generations of Kuumba members—for being many things to the choir: a generous patron, an invaluable adviser, a fierce advocate, and a true friend. As Haven Jones ‘15 (President ’14-’15) so rightly said in a reflection email she shared with us just days after his death, Dr. Counter “valued our community, our art, and our unabashed celebration of black culture, and he was not shy about it at all.” He truly was Kuumba’s “biggest champion at Harvard,” as LeShae Henderson ‘16 (President ‘15-‘16) said while reflecting on Dr. Counter’s relationship with Kuumba. It was Dr. Counter who made it possible for Kuumba to perform at Nelson Mandela’s honorary degree ceremony in 1998, and interact with other important cultural figures when they came to campus. Without Dr. Counter’s efforts, many of the incredible experiences Kuumba has had the honor of having throughout the years would simply not have happened.
Ultimately, as we think about Dr. Counter’s life, we are reminded of the iconic way he used to talk about the choir when introducing us to audiences at ceremonies and events. He would almost always refer to Kuumba as “the gem of Harvard” or “a true Harvard treasure.” As we survey Dr. Counter’s distinguished legacy as a world explorer, renowned scholar, trusted advisor, and vocal supporter of black arts, we can’t help but conclude that Dr. Counter was the real “gem of Harvard.” He was the “true Harvard treasure”—and he will be terribly missed.
With loving memories,
The Kuumba Singers of Harvard College Executive Board
posted: July 20, 2017
Kuumba (v., Swahili): to create.
Kuumba was founded during a time when Black students on Harvard’s campus, and in the Boston area, were still reeling from the assassination of Dr. King, as well as heightened racial tensions on campus and around the country. Amidst all this turmoil, a group of Black students, in 1970, decided to do something revolutionary; they decided to carve out a space for themselves and engage in the radical act of celebrating Blackness. And over 45 years after they made that consequential decision, Kuumba remains committed to being a safe space for black students on Harvard’s campus, and a cultural mecca for all those who desire to celebrate Black creativity and spirituality in all its forms.
Kuumba is a Swahili word that means “to create.” We take that to mean doing what we can with what we have to leave a space better than we found it. This mission permeates and motivates our performances, our community work, and our unabashed celebration of Black art. We firmly believe that Black art sustains and directs our culture; it reminds us of our past, makes us mindful of the present, and gives us hope and guidance for the future. And we are committed—now more than ever before—to celebrating and magnifying it wherever we go.
As an organization, Kuumba is many things: a safe space, a non-audition choir, an artistic haven, a creative community, a true family. But to fully understand exactly what Kuumba is—and can be for you—you must experience it first-hand. So, whether you are a prospective member, an alumnus/ae, or an avid supporter, we invite you to come to any and all of the events we publicize on this website and our Facebook page, including our weekly rehearsals during the academic year. We truly hope that you will join us as we strive to leave spaces better than we found them, and honor our history through artistic expression, community involvement, and a continued commitment to fostering an atmosphere of creativity and social activism on Harvard’s campus.