Black Presence in the Arts at UMass Amherst
“There is a long history of Black creativity that exists on this campus,” says Jamilla Deria, executive director of the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center. Indeed, the unmistakable legacy of Black students, faculty, and staff at UMass Amherst dates back to the late 19th century, as chronicled through the UMass Amherst Black Presence Project.
Robust activism in the 1960s and 1970s signaled the organization of festivals, performances, and academic programming; brought prominent Black artists, musicians, and educators to campus; and saw the appointment of the university’s first Black chancellor, whose priorities and efforts laid the groundwork for current arts programming at UMass Amherst. “What it allowed for was an expanding sense of belonging,” explains Deria. "To do that through art and culture was a revolutionary act then and continues to be a revolutionary act today.”
Activism and Art on Campus
In 1968, the Daily Collegian reported on a weekend-long festival dedicated to “Afro-American art, music, literature and opinion.” The event—the first Black Arts Festival—was organized by UMass Amherst, Springfield College, American College, and Amherst College students, including UMass student Cheryl Evans ’68.
When the burgeoning W. E. B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies (which was approved by the board of trustees in early 1970) was building its particular focus around activism in 1969, legendary songwriter, composer, and civil rights activist Nina Simone came to campus to give a special performance. Watch an excerpt of the performance here.
An early leader and faculty member in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, Esther Terry founded the Black Repertory Theater later that year. Terry ran the theater under the auspices of the Du Bois department for seven years, producing 12 plays. Those early years of the department were an active time for Black theater. At the time, prominent Black theater historian, playwright, and director Paul Carter Harrison was a member of the faculty. In 1975, he directed the first Black production to take place in the Studio Theater, a play titled The Black Egg: A Spiritual in Three Movements by UMass doctoral candidate Mungu Abudu.
Third World Theater—dedicated to the presentation production, and support of Black theater artists and artists of color—was also founded in the 1970s. In the 80s, the troupe was renamed New World Theater and brought into the fold at the Fine Arts Center.
Looking back, this rich theatrical history laid the foundation for the Department of Theater's Multicultural Theater Certificate, which defines, examines, and contests the roles of artists of color within and outside the American theater canon.
Fine Arts Center Established
In 1971, Randolph W. Bromery was appointed chancellor, making him the second African American ever to lead a predominantly white campus and the first African American to lead UMass Amherst.
Bromery oversaw the construction of the Fine Arts Center building, which has been renamed in his honor. It was during his tenure that the university was able to recruit jazz legends Max Roach, Archie Shepp, and Frederick C. Tillis to the faculty.
If we’re going to celebrate a culture, if we’re going to celebrate an artistic form, we need to have leaders and curators who authentically can speak to the lived experience.
The Fine Arts Center building, now known as the Bromery Center for the Arts (or "the Bromery"), in 1974.
Tillis was named the first director of the Fine Arts Center and brought the organization to life. A composer, performer, poet, educator, and arts administrator, Tillis profoundly shaped the culture and musical landscape at UMass Amherst for 40 years, and his presence is apparent today. In 2021, the Bromery's 1,800-seat concert hall was named in his honor. Today, the Fine Arts Center organization maintains Tillis's commitment to multicultural programming, strong educational partnerships, and activism through art.
Tillis held the role until 1999, when he was succeeded by Willie Hill Jr. followed by Deria in 2019. "At the Fine Arts Center, we’ve historically had Black leadership. Leaders who were esteemed jazz musicians and educators," Deria says. "If we’re going to celebrate an artistic form, we need to have leaders and curators who authentically can speak to the lived experience."
Fred Tillis on the front promenade of the Bromery Center for the Arts, neé the Fine Arts Center.
Giants of Jazz at UMass Amherst
In 1973, Tillis founded the Afro-American Music and Jazz Studies program at UMass Amherst, making it one of the first universities to offer a BM degree in jazz performance. For 50 years, the program (now known as the Jazz and African American Music Studies program, or JAAMS) has included faculty drawn from the highest echelon of jazz and gospel music, including Tillis, Roach, and Shepp, as well as Horace Clarence Boyer, Yusef Lateef, Billy Taylor, and Reggie Workman.
Black Artistry through Dance
Around the same time, the UMass Dance program began its 50-year history of honoring and supporting Black artistry at the university. Richard Jones, an internationally known jazz dancer and choreographer, began teaching at UMass in 1973 and was instrumental in the founding of the program. He instilled in students an appreciation for Black artists’ contribution to dance, an approach that's still used today as the university engages with leading Black artists and scholars in the field. Over the years, dance students at UMass have had the opportunity to work with artists such as Camille A. Brown, Robert Battle, Ronald K. Brown, and Bill T. Jones among others.
The Baldwin Era
In 1978, James Baldwin received an honorary doctorate from the university. From 1983 through 1986, the pivotal American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist joined UMass Amherst as a professor and distinguished fellow in the Institute for the Advanced Study in the Humanities, working alongside many faculty in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies.
“[The department] was really building its particular focus around activism, and you can’t get more of a Black activist than James Baldwin,” says Dr. Irma McClaurin, biocultural anthropologist, activist, and award-winning writer. (The Irma McClaurin Black Feminist Archive is housed in the library's special collections and contains many photos of Baldwin.)
Students were so drawn to Baldwin that they would line up outside his office in the New Africa House during his office hours. The first class he taught at UMass was so popular, it had to be held in Mahar Auditorium.
Written and edited by students at UMass Amherst, The Drum was centered around the Black literary experience, and appeared from 1969 to 1988. Visit Special Collections and University Archives to view digitized versions of every issue of the literary journal.
Kandy Lopez, Marly & Luis (installation) (Detail), 2022, 12.5' x 75', yarn and repurposed clothing. Lopez's work will appear in the Augusta Savage Gallery from February through April 2024 as part of the exhibition As We Move Forward.
Inclusivity through Visual Art
Named in honor of renowned sculptor Augusta Savage, the Augusta Savage Gallery was founded in 1970 by the Du Bois department. Today, its mission is to promote artistic works from a broad spectrum of cultures. Exhibits are selected for their aesthetic integrity and ability to enlighten the viewer on such issues as race, ethnicity, class, and cultural identity.
This mission is on display during As We Move Forward, an exhibition featuring the works of 17 Black, Latinx, and Afro-Indigenous women artists from Savage’s home state of Florida, co-curated by Nhadya Lawes and Juana Valdés, an associate professor in the UMass Department of Art.
Boston-born painter Richard Yarde is known for historical portraits of African American heroes and large, vibrant paintings depicting the jazz world of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1990, he joined UMass Amherst, where he taught painting for two decades. Recognized by the university with a Samuel F. Conti Faculty Fellowship and distinguished Teaching Award, Yarde—affectionately known as Cookie Monster—was a popular teacher, who explored watercolor and art techniques used across cultures in his courses.
Today, the Department of Art aims to nurture self-care, the care of others, and the cultivation of empathy to encourage engagement within the department and with communities beyond.
A spread in the class of 2005 yearbook, The Index, highlights film auteur Spike Lee's visit to campus. Hundreds of students came to hear Lee's one-hour speech about his portrayal of life as an African American in a resource-restricted neighborhood through film.
Nina Simone and James Baldwin were not the only Black creative icons to add their voices to the cultural discourse on the UMass Amherst campus. Over the decades, many important cultural figures, artists, actors, musicians, and creators have visited campus to give performances and speeches, hold guest lectures, or visit classrooms. Among them are Chuck D, Desmond Tutu, B.B. King, Spike Lee, Toni Morrison, and Laverne Cox.
To learn more about the history of Black creativity, culture, activism, research, and intellectualism at UMass Amherst, explore the Office of Equity and Inclusion's Black Presence Project.
This story was originally published in February 2024.