February is Black History Month. Over the next several weeks, we would like to provide you with bits of information about the events and lives of African Americans in Minnesota with an emphasis on African Americans in the Twin Cities. We will not be able to cover every event or highlight every person as it is impossible to do justice to the tremendous impact of one people on a community. We hope to provide you with enough to whet your appetite to learn more about the history and the cultures that have helped create the rich, vibrant community that we are all a part of.
Music has been a cornerstone of expression for blacks for hundreds of years. In Minnesota, it was embodied in lullabies, family group singing, and the church. Many of the songs were spirituals. As the black population grew, the repertoire increased. Churches often had adult, youth, and children’s choirs – all performing music for holidays, Sunday services, and other religious occasions.
Groups like the Cantorians, formed in the mid-1950s, combined religious music with popular songs in their performances. Most venues were not open to black musicians so they performed at Hallie Q. Brown and Phyllis Wheatley Community Centers and at social clubs, such as Credjafawn, as well as the few clubs owned by blacks.
Spirituals, gospel, blues, jazz, rock, and rap all drew on a common experience; some groups emphasized only the religious music of spirituals and gospel, others were more secular.
In the 1960s, Macalester College undertook an ambitious program to recruit black students and inform others about black culture. Music was part of the program. By 1971, a group of 40 musicians (10 instrumentalists and 30 vocalists) formed an ensemble they named the Sounds of Blackness. From the beginning, their mission was to present all forms of African American music, to educate others about its full range, and to instill pride in blacks about their music heritage. Some recording companies resisted working with a group whose music was so diverse, instead trying to get Sounds to focus on only one type of music.
Director Gary Hines and the group held to their mission. By 1988, they teamed up with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and their recording company. Three years later, in 1991, Sounds won their first of two Grammies, this one for their album, The Evolution of Gospel.
The Sounds of Blackness has toured internationally and performed at President Bill Clinton’s inaugural.
The lively arts scene in the Twin Cities gained a significant addition in 1976 with the creation of the Penumbra Theatre Company. Lou Bellamy, the founder and artistic director, grew up in St. Paul and studied theater while in college. His vision was both to have a theater dedicated to portraying the lives and experiences of black Americans and to provide work for black directors and actors.
Penumbra, housed at the Hallie Q. Brown/Martin Luther King Community Center in St. Paul, is one of the few professional African American theater companies putting on a full season of plays each season. Its efforts have won it national awards. One accomplishment in which the company takes great pride is in having been the first theater to stage three plays by August Wilson, who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in drama.
Wilson commented on Penumbra:
We are what we imagine ourselves to be and we can only imagine what we know to be possible. The founding of Penumbra Theatre enlarged that possibility. And its corresponding success provokes the community to a higher expectation of itself.
Source: Taylor, David Vassar. African Americans in Minnesota: The People of Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002. Print.