The Harlem Cultural Festival
By | August 21, 2021
In the Summer of 1969, Woodstock became the music festival to remember. At the time, other youth-oriented festivals, like Monterey and Newport were starting to appear. The Harlem Cultural Festival, with its six free shows from June 29 to August 24, 1969, was different; it appealed to a large cross-section of the community, drawing families and churchgoers as well as the youth of New York City. The Harlem Cultural Festival celebrated African American music and culture. Just as Woodstock showcased iconic musicians, the Harlem Cultural Festival featured the performances of some of the greats: B.B. King, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Stevie Wonder were among those to perform during the festival, with performances on Sundays at 3 p.m. in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park (which is now Marcus Garvey Park). The six shows had a combined attendance of close to 300,000, rivaling that of Woodstock.
It Got Its Start In 1967
The festival got its start in 1967, when the city’s Parks Department hired Tony Lawrence, a local entertainer, to put together summer programming in Harlem. Tony Lawrence was a music and television performer in Virginia before he moved to New York. He sang a combination of Calypso, R&B, and soul ballads, recording forgotten singles for Jude Records. He found a fan base by the mid-1960s and then began working as a church Youth Director. He also raised funds for a playground and a Head Start program. In 1967, he started working for New York’s Parks Department, and they began working on putting together the festival. The festival had a small budget, but still attracted artists like Count Basie and Tito Puente in its first two years. It continued to grow over three summers, becoming a place for black music, culture, and politics. It also became a place for up-and-coming politicians like Robert Kennedy to be seen.