Black Woodstock! Remembering Harlem’s Forgotten Cultural Celebration

Attendees at Black Woodstock 1969

With the recent and traumatic excavation of the buried truth about cultural atrocity at Tulsa, Oklahoma in the rear-view mirror, I’m looking toward more hopeful memories of the past. There is another event that altered the lives of Black Americans in a much more joyous way. In 1969, just one year after the Civil Rights Act was implemented, a musical celebration took place in Harlem that was dubbed Black Woodstock. Yes, you heard me: Black Woodstock!

The Harlem Cultural Festival featured a series of weekly concerts held in Mount Morris Park during the Summer of 1969. The purpose of the series was to promote and celebrate the explosion of black pride politically and culturally. That summer we went from Negro to Black and a fresh awareness of ourselves. Black Power was on the rise in the hearts and minds of the nation, and particularly the inhabitants of Harlem. The event was held on several Sundays between June 29 to August 24, during the glorious Summer of ‘69. The other Woodstock was held for three consecutive nights and went on to achieve legendary status in the history books of popular culture. The Harlem Cultural Festival was left out of the history books altogether and has gone virtually unknown and unheard of by most, save for the participants, attendees and lovers of Soul, Jazz and R&B music. We are now aware of this major musical event that occurred in 1969 during the famous Summer of Love.

The idea to hold the festival was the brainchild of music promoter Tony Lawrence, who gathered some of the greatest entertainers across many genres. Black music performances included stars like Nina Simone, The Fifth Dimension, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers, Sly and The Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and The Pips and B.B. King. There was also a variety of artists, poets and speeches by political upstarts like Jessie Jackson. These weekly events were attended by more than 300,000 and were completely free. There were some problems during the events, like when the NYPD refused to provide security on particular weeks. When this occurred, The Black Panther Party graciously offered their services. A weekly hour-long look at the festival was broadcast on local station WNEW, which was Channel 5 at the time. During the performance of Stevie Wonder, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. The landing was announced at the festival, but the crowd collectively booed, apparently the lack of infrastructure in the Black community was more important to them than Apollo 11.

The great Nina Simone at Black Woodstock

Miraculously, forty hours of footage that languished in a basement for fifty years was recently discovered. Needless to say, that when Amir Questlove Thompson of The Roots and band leader of The Tonight Show saw the footage, he was dumbfounded. He had absolutely no previous knowledge of this festival. He then took it upon himself to, as he says, change history. He devoured all forty hours of footage, did extensive research about the era and produced and directed Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a documentary about these important historical events. Summer of Soul premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 28, 2021, and is scheduled for theatrical release and streaming on Hulu on July 2, 2021. Don’t miss the party!

Attendees gather in the shade at Black Woodstock: photo by by Baú do Rock

5 Comments

  1. Princess Diandra, thank you for bringing us this account! I will definitely be watching for this documentary. I remember the music, the musicians well. Blessings to you!

    1. Thank you! I too look forward to seeing the documentary. I need to know the how and why this was buried for half a century. That’s slightly appalling…

  2. OMG!! I love this essay. You know everything and everything. More! Yes, it’s appalling and sad how American history about people of color just gets buried–the truths and the triumphs and the horrors. Let’s change that. I bet you got tea about Stonewall. It’s seems so white in the re-tellings this year. I know it was deeper than that.

    1. Do I EVER! The white washing of Stonewall hits such a sour note, as the catalysts for the whole shebang and the two who literally staretd the fire were black and brown Trans women, Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.

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