The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival drew more than 300,000 people to Harlem’s 20-acre Mount Morris Park from June 29 to August 24, 1969 against the backdrop of enormous political, cultural and social changes in the United States. The summer concert series featured huge performers including BB King, Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone.
Organized by a singer and actor in his thirties, born in St. Kitts, named Tony Lawrence, the festival actually started in the summer of 1967. Over the course of three summers, it became an important stage for the black culture, politics and music. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Lawrence announced from the stage during the festival, “From here to Harlem: soul hour! “
Despite the importance of the Harlem event, it eventually became more or less lost in history, unlike another festival held the same summer near Woodstock, New York. That changed in 2021 when a documentary directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson finally shed light on footage from the event.
The Harlem Festival had the backing of then New York Mayor John Lindsay and Parks Commissioner August Heckscher. In 1969 it also won the sponsorship of General Foods subsidiary Maxwell House. With these funds, the event could afford to present performances by a who’s who of the best black artists in blues, R&B, rock, gospel, jazz, soul and funk: BB King, Mongo Santamaría, David Ruffin, The Chambers Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Chuck Jackson and more.
Vocal harmony group Fifth Dimension, backers of “Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In”, titled the very first day of the festival. Sly and the Family Stone performed a psychedelic-rock and funky soul set that urged the crowd to join in and help sing “I Want to Take You Higher”. Black gospel music was on display as the Edwin Hawkins Singers took the stage to sing “Oh Happy Day”. The Staple Singers performed their blues-infused gospel and later Mavis Staples was invited to join Mahalia Jackson’s “Queen of Gospel” to perform Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey’s standard, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” the song Mahalia Jackson sang at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in Atlanta the year before.
A place with a rich African-American history
It had taken a lot of effort from festival creator Tony Lawrence to persuade agents and artist representatives to allow these acts to perform in the heart of Harlem, the symbolic capital of black city life that had seen riots in 1967 and looting after murder in 1968. Harlem was the black Mecca: it had already hosted the Harlem Renaissance (and its concept of a “new negro” more willing to defend itself). The neighborhood was home to activists and organizations such as Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), WEB Du Bois and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity, Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement and Audley “Queen Mother” Moore’s Committee for Reparations for Descendants of US Slaves.
The Harlem Cultural Festival gave the legendary district another electric cultural moment. TV producer Hal Tulchin filmed around 50 hours of the event, but the reels sat in a basement for almost half a century because Tulchin could not interest anyone in turning the recordings into a larger project. While festivals like Woodstock and Altamont, which had a majority of white artists, were historically recognized, the Harlem Cultural Festival was only rarely featured on occasional shows, before the creation of Questlove’s documentary.
The festival took place amid the moon landing, major protests and trials
The 2021 documentary “Summer of Soul” chronicles a changing black America at a time when most of American society was in flux. Most of the marches, protests, and assaults against black Americans in the 1960s took place in the context of the civil rights movement and were recorded on black and white news. The images of Tulchin from the Harlem Festival were filmed in color and bring vividness to the moment of the story.
“I absolutely loved the musical performances and loved the closeness and privacy of the shots,” said Neal Shoemaker, Founder and Director of Harlem Heritage Tours & Cultural Center. “At one point they’re filming Mahalia Jackson and you can literally see how many teeth she has in her mouth. It’s in color – and the thing about that time is that we are sensitized to seeing this black time of life in black and white, because everything was shot in black and white. But seeing it in color was a whole new experience.
While Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight were performing in Harlem, NASA’s Apollo 11 landed astronauts on the moon on July 20, 1969. A CBS News report from that day quotes a festival attendee suggesting that the money Invested in the moon landing could have been better spent helping poor people in Harlem and across the country.
The concert was underway as 21 members of the Black Panther Party were charged with attempting to bomb and attack police and were on trial in Lower Manhattan. (They were eventually all acquitted.) The concert hall was also open when the New York Young Lords Party launched a “garbage offensive” in El Barrio / East Harlem to draw attention to the city’s neglect of this. district.
“As activists we were totally committed,” said Denise Oliver-Velez, member of the Young Lords Party in “Summer of Soul”. “It was like going to war and we were propelled into a wave of music.”