Kuumba Celebrates 30 Years

From Quincy dorm room to Memorial Church, choir has grown, prospered

Last year, Adey K. Delbridge '00, president of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, was on tour in Trinidad with his fellow group members, preparing to perform in front of a crowd of children, when he realized what it meant to be a "Kuumbabe."

"Before we were onstage, the choir was acting silly, giggling...being one big crazy, silly family," Delbridge says. "But when the curtains opened we were completely serious, completely professional, and we had an amazing time...I remember myself saying, 'That was Kuumba. A family with a message of black creativity and spirit all put together in one wonderful evening.'"

This weekend, Kuumba celebrated its 30th anniversary, delighted at how the group and its motto, "Dedicated to the expression of black creativity and spirituality through song," has endured over three decades.

The weekend's celebration culminated in a sold-out concert in Sanders Theatre on Saturday night, a day which the Governor of Massachusetts dedicated in honor of Kuumba.

But though the motto has remained constant for 30 years, much has changed within the group, as it has gone from cash-strapped to relatively prosperous and from ethnically homogenous to culturally diverse.

Dennis W. Wiley '72, co-founder of the Kuumba Singers, marveled at how far the group has come.

"It was our dream that the group would survive, but [in the early 1970s] there was such subtle hostility toward acknowledging black cultural contributions to this society," he says. "We couldn't take for granted that something like this would survive at Harvard for 30 years."

Strangers in a Strange Land

Kuumba began in the late 1960s when an increasing number of African-Americans entered Harvard but found the University devoid of resources able to deal with their identity, Wiley explained.

"In the late 1960s, Harvard University was a strange land, indeed, for African and African-American students," he wrote in an essay published in Kuumba's 30th anniversary commemorative booklet. "Not only did the curriculum offer little that dealt with the unique history and experience of black people, but the institution itself was culturally alien, and sometimes even hostile, to students of African descent."

By November 1970, students were agitating for greater resources tailored to African-American students. One consequence of the movement was the creation of the Afro-American Studies department that year. Another was the creation of Kuumba.

On Friday night, 30 years later, Wiley sat in the Quincy House lobby, remembering the night he and a group of friends gathered in Quincy 317 to organize a singing group.

The group grew to become the Kuumba Singers and would practice on the second floor of the old Freshman Union.

"We felt the need to validate the experience we brought to the University," says Kuumba singer R. Michelle Green '74.

And while Dennis J. Henderson '79, a former president of the Kuumba Singers, says that the University, especially former Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III, always accepted them, it was "always a struggle to get funding."

"We didn't have difficulty," Wiley says. "But neither did we have strong support."

Delbridge says he remembers being told of students who would take out loans in the early years to fund spring tours.

Many of the Kuumba Singers' first performances took place in House dining halls and community churches. And although the group was founded at Harvard, students at other Boston colleges and some non-students from the area were also involved, Wiley says.

"The original drive [of the Kuumba Singers] was to cut across the traditional lines of class, age and gender which kept black people from being one," he adds.

And although Wiley says he did not realize how long the Kuumba Singers would endure, on the night of their first practice session he felt as if they were creating something unique and special.

"When we said our closing prayer and left the old Freshman Union on that fateful night in 1970, we had no idea how amply God would bless the Kuumba Singers, nor did we in any way imagine that we had just laid the cornerstone of a Harvard institution," he wrote.

"What we did realize, however, was that we had just enjoyed an unforgettable, spirit-filled evening," he continues. "Maybe, just maybe, we vaguely sensed that we had just discovered a way to express the rich creativity of our black spirituality in a strange land."

A Transitional Time

Membership in the Kuumba Singers continued to grow throughout the 1970s, but the 1980s were a transitional time, says former Presidents Diane Johnson '84 and Curtis M. Hairston, Jr. '84.

In the early '80s, Harvard student involvement in the group began to decrease, Johnson says.

Hairston attributes this trend to the administration's attempt to discourage students from being involved in activities geared solely toward African-Americans.

In the 1981-82 school year there was an attempt to get rid of the Afro-American Studies department and in 1983 a pre-frosh week dedicated solely to black students was discontinued, he adds.

"The buzzword of the time was 'assimilation,'" Hairston says. "At one point there was question from the administration as to whether [the Kuumba Singers] would continue to be a Harvard organization."

But the identity of the group had begun to change, accepting students from every cultural background.

Epps remembers standing outside Memorial Church after a Kuumba Christmas concert in the late 1980s and being amazed at the cultural diversity within the group.

"I remember asking a white student, 'How did you come to be involved in Kuumba?'" he says. "She said, 'My roommate was in it and they always seemed to have such a great time...and so one day I asked if I could come. And I was welcome.'"

The Golden Years

Throughout the 1990s, Kuumba continued to increase its membership along with its presence on campus.

The largest influx came in 1997 as a result of the success of the 1996-1997 school year, Delbridge says.

With an increasingly diverse membership, some members of the group worried that the organization would lose its cultural identity.

"As the composition of Kuumba changed, it became more important to emphasize the history of where Kuumba came," Delbridge says. "To forget that is to forget Kuumba."

These tensions flared on the group's e-mail list about two years ago, when some in the group wondered whether the group's increasingly diverse membership threatened its mission.

"During my tenure as president... I saw a flurry of e-mails threaten to rend Kuumba's family along racial lines," wrote Phillip A. Goff '99 in the group's anniversary booklet, who served as president of the Kuumba Singers from 1997 to 1998.

"During that year, I saw many Harvardians cease to include Kuumba in their list of black organizations," he added. "Kuumba seemed on the brink of losing everything I thought made it so strong."

But Goff says members came to realize the group's strength lay in its message, not the ethnicity of its membership.

And Delbridge says that the past few seasons have been "golden years" for the group as concerts continued to grow in popularity.

"I think it's just the power of Kuumba," he says. "Its message just touches so many people."

And as 30 years of singers came together on Friday night to celebrate their history, they praised the progress that Kuumba has made while staying true to its purpose.

"The multicultural diversity reflects what is going on in society," Wiley says. "As long as the group continues to lift up what originally got it started, the emphasis on black music and spirit, as long as others want to affirm that, its' a positive thing. It shows the growth of Harvard and of people in general."

Robert Winfrey, who acted as the group's director for 25 years, spoke of the family that Kuumba had created over the years and how the organization had been a home for so many students on campus. It sings at concerts, but also at members' weddings and their relatives' funerals.

"It's a sense of fellowship, sisterhood, brotherhood, family," he said Friday night as he watched members past and present sing "Can't Turn Around," a song they have been singing for 30 years.

He smiled and gestured to tables where other members sat, clapping and swaying back and forth. Henderson stood at the edge of the group singing with his young son in his arms.

"It's a family," Winfrey says. "An enduring family."