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Black Arts Festival

In 1985, Planning for the Annual Festival Began

“The Black Arts Festival is founded on the belief that Black Awareness should be an integral part of our society. Through artistic expression we help promote the essence of our heritage. As a people of fortitude, courage, and a will to survive against all odds. We share the right of recognition, respectability, and the obligation to leave a tangible legacy for our children and future generations.”–Philosophy statement

“Thus we are here at the beginning…”

It all started in 1985, when the City of Kalamazoo’s Recreation Leisure and Cultural Affairs (RLCA) department was asked to participate in the planning and funding of a downtown festival that would promote black arts and culture. Then manager of the RLCA, Lois Jackson, surveyed the community interest in such an endeavor. The results came back overwhelmingly positive. Other key coordinators in the festival’s development that first year included Bertha Barbee-McNeal, singer of the 1960’s Motown group The Velvelettes, artist James Palmore and Gail Sydnor. Resolved to locate the necessary funding for a largescale event, the City of Kalamazoo both allocated funds from their budget, and began a fundraising effort that would help cover the total costs.

Black Arts Festival Program, 1986

The goals were outlined and articulated by organizers who saw an opportunity to draw awareness to the fundamental role art plays in the everyday lives of the local black community. Those tasked with the planning of the inaugural event drafted a statement of objectives and goals that put a voice to the need. The objectives and goals were:


  • To promote the fine and performing arts
  • To provide a showcase, and establish a creative base for Black artists
  • To sharpen the perceptions of the Kalamazoo community regarding the works of Black artists
  • To share with youth the wealth of talent in our community
  • To create a mini-mobile display to promote the festival in outlying areas
  • To make Kalamazoo Black Arts Festival an annual event


  • Increase local awareness of Black culture
  • Make artistic statements regarding our struggles, aspirations, dreams, and accomplishments
  • Encourage untapped Black artistic ability in every age group
  • Provide an opportunity for new artists to promote their interest and/or ability
  • To foster the sense of pride which has always been imminent among our people

Various cultural programs were planned throughout the first week of August of 1986, culminating with the three-day festival at Bronson Park during the weekend. Some of the programs planned included gospel and jazz musical performances, street theatre, a regional Double Dutch tournament, a juried fine arts competition, poetry and dance workshops, storytelling for children, and a concert from The Velvelettes.

The Black Arts and Cultural Center
Gail Sydnor, Kalamazoo Gazette, 1990

Not only did organizers in 1985 envision an annual festival each summer, but also a sustained enterprise that would continue “to develop human potential, self esteem and creativity among Blacks of all ages in the Kalamazoo Community, advance the awareness of Black artistic ability, and to preserve Black cultural heritage.” This mission profile would become the statement of purpose of The Black Arts and Cultural Center, a nonprofit organization formed in wake of the success of the festival. For more than three decades, in addition to organizing the Black Arts Festival each year, the BACC has sponsored art exhibits, musical concerts, theater performances, youth-centered programs, and educational seminars all year round. Today, the BACC is headquartered at 359 S. Kalamazoo Mall.


Written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, May 2022


Local History Room Files

Subject File: Black Arts Festival


Black Art in the Absence of Light

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