The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival brought over 300,000 people to Harlem’s 20-acre Mount Morris Park from June 29 to August 24, 1969 against a backdrop of enormous political, cultural and social change in the United States. The summer concert series featured huge acts, including B.B. King, Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone.
Organized by a 30-something St. Kitts-born singer and actor named Tony Lawrence, the festival actually got started in the summer of 1967. Over the course of three summers, it grew into an important stage for Black culture, politics and music. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Lawrence announced from the stage during the festival, “From right here in Harlem: Soul time!”
Despite the Harlem event's prominence, it eventually became more or less lost to 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 highlighted footage from the event.
The Harlem festival had the support of then-New York City Mayor John Lindsay and Parks Commissioner August Heckscher. In 1969, it also won sponsorship from the General Foods subsidiary Maxwell House. With those funds, the event could afford to feature performances by a who’s-who of the top Black artists in blues, R&B, rock, gospel, jazz, soul, and funk: B.B. King, Mongo Santamaría, David Ruffin, the Chambers Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Chuck Jackson and more.
The vocal harmony group Fifth Dimension, singers of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” headlined on the festival’s very first day. Sly and the Family Stone played a psychedelic-rock, funky soul set which 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 played their blues-infused gospel and later Mavis Staples was invited to join the “Queen of Gospel” Mahalia Jackson to perform the Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey standard, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”—the song Mahalia Jackson sang at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in Atlanta just the year before.
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A Location With Rich African American History
It had taken a lot of effort for the festival creator, Tony Lawrence, to persuade agents and artists representatives to allow these acts to perform in the heart of Harlem, the symbolic capital of Black urban life which had seen riots in 1967 and looting after King’s murder in 1968. Harlem was the Black Mecca: it had already played host to the Harlem Renaissance (and its concept of a “New Negro” more willing to advocate for themselves). The neighborhood had been home to activists and organizations like Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), W.E.B. 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 U.S. Slaves.
The Harlem Cultural Festival provided the legendary neighborhood with another electric cultural moment. TV producer Hal Tulchin filmed some 50 hours of the event, but the reels sat in a basement for nearly half a century as Tulchin couldn’t interest anyone in turning the recordings into a larger project. While festivals like Woodstock and Altamont, which had a majority of white artists perform, were historically recognized, the Harlem Cultural Festival was only infrequently featured in occasional broadcasts—prior to the creation of Questlove’s documentary.
Festival Took Place Amid Moon Landing, Major Protests and Trials
The 2021 documentary “Summer of Soul” chronicles a changing Black America at a time when most of U.S. society was in flux. Most of the marches, protests and assaults on Black Americans in the 1960s took place in the context of the civil rights movement and were recorded on black and white newsreels. Tulchin’s footage of the Harlem festival was filmed in color and lends a vibrancy to the moment in history.
“I really loved the musical performances, and I loved how up-close and intimate the shots were,” says Neal Shoemaker, founder and director of the 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 period is we are sensitized to seeing that period of Black life in black and white, because everything was shot in black and white. But seeing it in color, that was a whole brand-new experience.”
As Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight performed in Harlem, NASA’s Apollo 11 landed astronauts on the moon on July 20, 1969. A CBS News report from that day quotes festival attendee suggesting that the money invested into the moon landing could have been better spent helping poor people in Harlem and throughout the country.
The concert was in progress as 21 members of the Black Panther Party were charged with trying to bomb and attack police and faced trial in lower Manhattan. (They were eventually all acquitted.) The music venue was also on as the New York Young Lords Party initiated a “Garbage Offensive” in in El Barrio/East Harlem to bring attention to the city’s neglect of that neighborhood.
“As activists we were making a total commitment,” said Denise Oliver-Velez, a Young Lords Party member in “Summer of Soul.” “It was like going to war and we were propelled on a wave of music.”