Kuumba (pronounced koo-oom-bah) was founded in 1970 by Dennis Wiley and Fred Lucas, two African American undergraduates of the Harvard class of 1972. In an era of “Black Power” and Black pride, immediately following the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. and the 1969 Harvard Strike, the choir emerged as a source of community, spiritual inspiration, political motivation and cultural stimulation among the small but growing number of Black students at Harvard. Inspired by the History of Black Music class taught by Professor Hubert Walters in the spring of 1970, the choir concept was conceived that summer as an outgrowth of a project on Black music conducted by Dennis and Fred and supported by the newly established Department of African and African American Studies and African American Cultural Center.
The next fall, Marilynn Sasportas, Radcliffe Class of 1974, joined them in Quincy 317 to assist in planning and publicizing the first rehearsal. The Kuumba Singers were officially born in November 1970 when students from the classes of 1971 -1974 gathered for the first time one evening after dinner in a second floor lounge of the old Freshman Union, now known as the Barker Center. Following that initial meeting, Walters would assume responsibility as the choir’s first director. The first spring concert, entitled “An Evening of Black Spirituality,” was held in Sanders Theater on Sunday, May 16, 1971.
It was not easy for Black students to “sing the Lord’s song” in the “strange land” of Harvard during this period of racial tension and campus unrest. Yet, Kuumba not only provided spiritual inspiration—it was also a source of unity and strength. The group chose the name “Kuumba” (Swahili for “creativity”) because it best captured the choir’s intent to reflect the creative genius of Black people through the rich diversity of Diasporic music and cultural expression. As written in the organization’s constitution, “Black music is a manifestation of the Black spirit – it speaks to our every emotion. Moreover, Black music helps sustain and direct our culture.” Reminding the Black community of its past, informing it of its present, and giving it hope and guidance for the future, the Kuumba Singers—through song, dance, poetry, and other forms of artistic expression—have always sought to leave the space called Harvard, and its surrounding community, better than when we found it. The choir’s current racial and ethnic diversity is both a remarkable testimony to, and a relentless test of, that noble and enduring ideal.
Since those early years, the torch has been carried forward by only two additional directors, Mr. Robert Winfrey and Mr. Sheldon K.X. Reid (College ’96, GSE ’98), and by more than 1,000 Kuumba members and alumni.
Kuumba’s founders chose the name “Ku’umba” over the original more constrictive name, “Harvard-Radcliffe Gospel Choir” because it allowed for all modes of Diasporic expression. In Swahili, Ku’umba roughly means creativity (or to create), though the literal meaning is subtler: it is the creativity of leaving a space better than you found it; it is the spirit of positively impacting through modes of creativity.
Thus, the mission of Kuumba is to express the creativity and spirituality of Black people in a way that leaves a space better than it was found.
“Kuumba: The Early Years”
By Reverend Hubert E. Walters, First Director of the Kuumba Singers
Prior to the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4th 1968, there were very few if any, black undergraduates attending predominantly white colleges and universities. The monumental Supreme Decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in public institutions had forced many of these institutions to open their doors to black students. By the time of his assassination, many of these institutions were still trying to comply with “most important American governmental act of any kind since the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.” However, in 1963 I was fortunate enough to enter East Carolina University, a white university in Greenville, North Carolina, my hometown. I completed the requirements for the Masters degree in music in 1965 and I became the first black student to graduate from the music department. At the time of Dr. King’s death, I was an Assistant Professor of music at Shaw University, a historically black college in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I conducted the famous Shaw University Chorale. Following his death, financial resources became available to black undergraduate and graduate students that were not available prior to his death. My wife had graduated with highest honors from Shaw University, and she was the recipient of a four-year scholarship from the Ford Foundation and a four-year scholarship from Wellesley College. I, being a veteran of the Korean War, received a four-year scholarship named for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. These were difficult but exciting times, and we were inspired and energized from our participation in the sit-ins, marches, and building take-overs that accompanied the Civil Rights Movement. We were serious-minded students from the South, coming to Boston to study for two or three years with the expectation of returning to Shaw University.
So, it was that in the fall of 1969, I entered Boston University to work towards the Doctor of Musical Arts degree (DMA) at The School for the Arts. During my second semester of study, I was asked to deliver a lecture on black music at the Martin Luther King Center at Boston University. In attendance at the lecture was the secretary of the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard. Following my presentation she invited me to speak with Dr. Ewart Guinier, the newly appointed Chairman of the Department, about the possibility of teaching a course on black music at Harvard. Dr. Guinier, a brilliant professor with a booming bass-baritone voice, was familiar with the choral tradition of the HBCUs. And, with the large number of black students now enrolled at Harvard, he was eager to establish such a singing group through the Afro-American Studies Department. Knowing that I was a product of this great tradition, Dr. Guinier hired me without hesitation. During this time, the Dubois Institute, which had been established at Harvard in 1969 to address the problems of the Black community, was a separate entity from the Afro-American Studies Department. Professor Guinier, believing that the Department and the Institute had a “formal tie in theory and practice,” was fighting fiercely to combine the energies of the two separate entities. It was a difficult battle for Professor Guinier, and it eventually took its toll on his health.
I began teaching the History of Black Music (135A) and (135B) at Harvard in the spring semester of 1970. My class, which was always oversubscribed, met from four to six p.m. on Fridays. There was a compelling urgency on the part of the students to explore the Afro-centric experience in all of its dimensions. This time period was only two years removed from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which catapulted the Civil Rights Movement to the center of the nation’s conscience. Many white universities around the country were experiencing the influx of large numbers of black students on their campuses for the first time. These students were eager to establish a concrete identity with their African ancestry and to take full advantage of the opportunities that had been denied them for so long. They were committed to continue the struggle for truth and justice in America.
There was much discussion among the black students at Harvard about starting a singing group, which became known as the Kuumba Singers. In the choosing the name Kuumba meaning creativity in the Swahili language, the students were expressing their continuing desire to establish a concrete identity with their African ancestry. In my class were three students Dennis Wiley, presently a Pastor in Washington, D. C., Fred Lucas, a former Pastor of the Bridge Street AME Church in Brooklyn, New York, and Kenneth Ingram, a brilliant poet with multiple talents who became the Director of Culture for the City of Detroit, who were compelled to formalize this discussion. I invited Fred and Dennis to my apartment in Dorchester to discuss the possibility of my becoming the musical director of the Kuumba Singers. I was eager to exercise my knowledge of the black college choral tradition. I had already begun to miss the warmth and soulful emotion of the talented singers at Shaw University.
We came to some agreement at this meeting with Fred and Dennis. Dr. Guinier, after learning of the intentions of the students, offered space and financial assistance to the fledging organization. He wanted the Kuumba Singers to be aligned with the Afro-American Studies Department as a sort of laboratory for the courses I would be teaching; thereby, offering academic credit for membership in the group. This was never to be, because there was intense opposition to this from some areas of the Harvard administration.
Rehearsals for the group were held in what was then known as the freshman-dining hall. After the dinner mealtime, we would move the chairs around to provide space for the singers. A piano was not available, so all of our singing was a cappella. There were over ninety students at our first rehearsal. I had never seen so many talented musicians in one space since I began my teaching career in 1955. Many of them had studied instruments for several years and were very proficient with them. There were many excellent singers and instrumentalists among these students, but none of them were welcomed in the choral or instrumental organizations at Harvard or Radcliff. Yet, over the years, there had been a few students in the famous Men’s Glee Club at Harvard.
One of the first compositions I taught them was the Negro spiritual “Over My Head,” one of the spirituals that gave strength and motivation to our ancestors during the cruel days of chattel slavery. It is a well-documented fact that spirituals such as “Over My Head” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round” had their origin in the Black church, and that they were a continuing source of inspiration during the marching, sit-ins and building take-overs that were a part of the Civil Rights Movement in the South. The Movement was in full force in the South and was beginning to take shape in many Northern areas. Several students from other colleges and universities in Boston came to join the Kuumba Singers. Officers were elected and the Executive Board began to function. We were ready to engage in the struggle at Harvard.
Our first performance was held at The Myrtle Baptist Church, one of the oldest black churches in Newton, Massachusetts, where I was serving as organist. We began making plans for a concert in the spring of 1971 to be held at the Sanders Theater. Word about this vibrant singing group at Harvard had spread throughout the metropolitan area of Boston and beyond. We invited several groups from Boston to participate in our first concert. I was certainly in my element and, like Professor Guinier, was eager to connect the organization to the department for academic credit. A student organization, called Harvard-Radcliff Afro-American Cultural Center (HRAAC), had been established and financed by the university. One of the purposes of this organization was to provide financial assistance for activities involving black students. Later that year, I submitted a proposal to HRAAC for continuous financial support for the Kuumba Singers.
The most spectacular event in the spring of 1971 was the first concert held at Sanders Theater. As I recall, there was a great deal of excitement and tension on Harvard’s campus the night of our first performance. Students placed black cloth around the eyes of white statures in Sanders Theater and around the campus. On the night of the performance, black students stood at the door of Sanders Theater and would not allow any white person to enter. This was not, in my opinion, a malicious act on the part of the students. They were simply trying to establish an authentic identity and unity among themselves and to make a statement about their presence on the campus and the contribution they would eventually make to the music life at Harvard. Several young ladies in the choir designed and made the red, black, and green robes that we wore that night. They were putting the finishing touches on these garments at the dress rehearsal. Our first concert was an overwhelming SUCCESS! The theater was filled with black people from the community and the campus. Among them was Queen Mother Frances J. Pierce, a steward at the St. Paul AME Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Queen Mother Pierce was appointed to the office of steward by the pastor at that time, the Rev. Dr. John Bryant, who is now a Bishop in the AME Church. As pastor of St. Paul, Dr. Bryant was very supportive of the activities of Kuumba. Several members of Kuumba were instrumental in starting a choir at the church called the New Temple Singers. Queen Mother Pierce was an ardent supporter of Kuumba and remains that to this day. We marched into the concert hall to the sounds of “Everybody Loves the Lord, everybody has to pray sometimes, let’s get together sisters and brothers, we gonna have a good time tonight.” (I have a reel tape of this performance that I have kept over the years. It will be available in the near future.)
We were invited to perform in many places around the city and beyond. Our first tour was to Michigan under the guidance of Ken Ingram, who was a native of Detroit. On January 14, 1972, the Middlesex County Association of Black Churchmen invited Dr. Gardner C. Taylor, one of America’s greatest preachers of the Gospel, to speak at their first annual Birthday Celebration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Kuumba Singers were asked to provide the music for this celebration. We sang, “His Grace is Sufficient” by James Cleveland and “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” Arranged by Hall Johnson. A recording was made of this event. Dr. Gardner Taylor’s sermon, on that occasion, remains one of his masterpieces of preaching. (I have an LP of that recording, and, hopefully, we can make it available as a part of the 35th Celebration.)
The sit-in movement of the Civil Rights Era began in 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, when four black students from North Carolina A & T College sat at the counter of a segregated restaurant requesting to be served. This action by the students was against southern laws and customs and result was confrontation and violence. These activities had now spread to many college campuses in the form of rallies and building take-overs. Students at Harvard took over the administration building, protesting the university’s political interest in Angola. The Kuumba Singers and several other singing groups from the greater Boston area joined in singing while marching around the building for the entire period of the take-over. One of the pieces that we sang was “Satan We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn me ‘Round.” I recall one night during the take-over, Dr. Gardner C. Taylor; presently Pastor Emeritus of the great Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, N. Y., was visiting the campus. He spoke to us with these profound words, “It would seem that America has declared war on its young.” These were exciting and powerful times, and this statement rang loud and clear for Black people and especially for the Black students at Harvard.
Not long after this incident, Harvard began to set limits on our endeavor to establish ourselves as an asset to the cultural life at the university. I was released from my contract with the university on a, seldom if ever used, regulation stating, in general, that any professor, who had not acquired the doctorate in a certain period of time, could be released of his contract. It certainly was not because I had not been productive, because my classes were always full and many students from other colleges and universities came to take my course. Dr. Guinier was not successful in joining with the Dubois Institute, and slowly but surely, the faculty of the department began to leave or be dismissed. There were two other professors who were dismissed along with me. Dr. Guinier suggested that we attend a meeting of the faculty of Arts and Sciences as a last effort to remain at Harvard. I recall our entering a large room somewhere on the campus to face a larger round table of white men, who listened to each of our presentations, but to no avail. They had already decided that we should go. I learned some time later that Mr. Robert Winfrey had been given the responsibility to lead the Kuumba Singers. I was confident that the legacy would continue because Mr. Winfrey and I were from the same great black college choir tradition. He was a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta and I a graduate of North Carolina Central University in Durham.
Since teaching the first course on African-American Music at Harvard in 1971, I have taught courses on the history of Black American Music in approximately seven different institutions in the New England area: Boston State College, Simmons College, Quinsigamond Community College in Worchester, Goddard College in Vermont, The University of Massachusetts at Boston and Boston College. Presently, I am a lecturer in music and black studies at Boston College, where I teach courses on Rhythm and Blues and Jazz. I am musical director for the Voices of Imani, a chorus that is a laboratory for those who enroll in the courses I teach. Interestingly enough, black students at Boston College chose “Imani,” the Swahili word for faith as the name for their singing group. Students, who enroll in the Voices of Imani, receive credit for their participation.
As I have stated several times before, these were difficult years at Harvard and the greater Boston area in general and for me personally. My mother passed away in the fall of 1971 and my work at Boston University was not completed. Reflecting on these times reminds me that these years at Harvard were significant as they relate to the history, development, and global continuity of African-American Music. For just one hundred years earlier (1871), a group of nine students from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, an HBCU university, “Introduced the world to the music of black Americans.” The foregoing quote is the sub-title of a book written by Andrew Ward, entitled Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers. It is a moving story of the struggles of nine young people, based upon the singers’ diaries, interviews, speeches and letters. But more than that, it is concrete evidence that there is such a thing as the African-American Idiom and that “Africanisms” have survived in the music of black Americans. The Fisk singers, who are still in existence today, shared with Europe and other Western nations the time-honored utterances of their parents, many of whom were still enslaved in mind if not body at that time. As we understand, the African was brought to the American shores for one purpose alone and that was to “provide a source of cheap labor to build the Industrial Revolution in America.” This country was built on the blood, sweat, and tears of the transplanted African, and the African-American has given America “its only true musical art form,” for it is the African idiom that keeps American music from being a carbon copy of European music.
The establishment of these singing groups in the institutions of higher learning in the Northeast during this time period is clear evidence that the African-American idiom is still alive and well and was being transformed into a new mode of expression that we have come to call Gospel. Historically speaking, it is correct to call Gospel Music the contemporary spiritual because they both were created out of the resistance and servitude of the transplanted African in America, and they both stem from the Black Church.
And so it is that the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ring true when he stated in his last book Where Do We Go From Here: Community or Chaos, published in 1968, “This is the challenge. If we dare to meet it honestly, historians in future years will have to say there lived a people—a Black people—who bore their burdens of oppression in the heat of many days and who through tenacity and creative commitment, injected new meaning (my italics) into the veins of American life.” The Fisk Jubilee Singers introduced the idiom to the world in 1871. Black singers at Harvard and other predominantly white institutions injected the new meaning of this old meaning into the veins of higher education and have so transformed the landscape of American culture. Such is the legacy of The Kuumba Singers.