About Black Arts Festival

The Dr. Walter J. Leonard Black Arts Festival

Kuumbabes perform at the 20th annual Black Arts Festival. Photo by Andrea M. Bossi

About Walter J. Leonard:

The Kuumba Singers would like to pay a special tribute to Dr. Walter J. Leonard, a distinguished scholar and pioneering admissions administrator at Harvard University, after whom our Black Arts Festival is named. Dr. Leonard passed on December 8, 2015, leaving a legacy of work that is evident on the campuses of Harvard and universities across the country.  For many institutions of higher education, the road to a more diverse student body has been long and tumultuous journey. Dr. Leonard’s passionate pursuit of this goal led to revolutionizing changes in Harvard University admissions, and established the groundwork for affirmative action policies that continue to diversify American colleges today. He is remembered as an extraordinary leader by his colleagues, serving as a critical agent of progress in the recruitment of minority students, faculty and staff at Harvard. Additionally, he is renowned for a diplomacy and patience that allowed the University to navigate tumultuous years of change – years during which Kuumba was founded – and meet the varied demands of students without compromising the academic principles and experiences of everyone on campus. His warm support of the Kuumba Singers and black students at Harvard, in a period when the University seemed like a strange and unwelcoming land, will never be forgotten.

Dr. Leonard’s varied achievements include the Harvard Law School (HLS) Medal of Freedom, the School’s highest honor; an honorary membership of Wolfson College, University of Oxford; and two fellowships held at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, created in his honor at the University of Oxford.  He is a widely published figure, dealing with topics such as student protest movements and Black capitalism, and has served on the boards of major foundations, educational institutions, and corporations. His time at Harvard was spent as Assistant Dean and Assistant Director of Admissions at HLS, Special Assistant to the President of Harvard University, and founding chairman of the W.E.B DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research. In 1976, he left Harvard to become President of Fisk University, reviving the school from near-bankruptcy.

In the words of his colleagues…

“The work he did at Harvard had a ripple effect across the nation, and his influence and impact were ultimately felt in higher education nationwide. He was a truly inspiring agent for change, and his life inspires us to carry forward, in new ways, the work he did here.”

“…with creativity, diplomacy, vision, patience and steadfast determination, he was a pivotal catalyst for diversity and for the recruitment of minority students, faculty and staff.”

We send our deepest condolences to Dr. Leonard’s family and friends.

About the 23rd Black Arts Festival

“Radical Existence, Black Resistance”

Radical Existence. Black people deserve to exist. Our lives matter and each and every one of us lives radically by being who we are and paying homage to our cultural traditions despite the systemic oppression that has perpetuated various manifestations of anti-blackness in this country and the broader world.

Black Resistance. We resist this oppression and anti-blackness in how we create art and sustain ourselves. Black resistance is marching through the streets and it is also self care. It is cooking, singing, and writing.

Blackness is not synonymous with struggle; it is so much more. Black people, culture and communities encapsulate a beauty so vast, that all attempts to suppress it have failed. Because we are a community that will continue to rise. We will continue to exist. We will continue to resist. We invite you to join Kuumba as we celebrate Black existence, Black creation and Black art during this year’s Walter J. Leonard Black Arts Festival.



Black Arts Festival , 2020-2021

Mission of the Black Arts Festival:

“When asked to write about the Black Arts Festival’s history, I struggled to find a starting point. Does one start with the polyrhythmic music of West Africa or the primordial tragedy of the blues? Should one start with Paul Dunbar or Toni Morrison? I suppose the answer is that this festival began with a group of Black folk who knew that their own points of origin lay in the sustaining wisdom of Black art. We founded Harvard’s Black Arts Festival to remind our artists of their points of origin and to share those origins with our audience.

“The festival was first conceptualized as a simple fundraising event to honor the twenty-five year career of Mr. Robert Winfrey and to kickoff the endowment campaign of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College. Mr. Winfrey was an institution in his own right, directing the Kuumba Singers for two and a half decades, and leading them from obscurity to prosperity. The event was conceptualized as a tribute to the rich history he created and left to us upon his retirement. However, as the event grew in size, it became clear that the Black Arts Festival (or “BAF” as it is lovingly called by those that work on it) would celebrate more than an organization’s history. It would celebrate the history and traditions of a life-force — the arts — that has sustained America’s most maligned people…”


Phillip Atiba Goff


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