It’s happy anniversaries to Marvin Kelly, who is marking two very special 50th birthdays this year – the start of his career as a sought-after leather craftsperson, and birth of Blackfrica Promotions, the influential Harlem organization that started today’s successful Harlem Week festivities.
It began as Harlem Day, a daylong event held in August, 1974. Now dubbed Harlem Week, the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce production is a nearly month-long event featuring arts and cultural entertainment, educational undertakings, special activities for senior citizens, technology events for young and old, economic development-related sessions, and more.
Running from July 25 through Aug. 29 this year, Harlem Week offers a well-attended array of community-conscious events – as is traditional for the celebration – and stays true to the goals and purposes set forth by Blackfrica members a half-century ago.
In a 2016 address before Congress about the civic contributions of Blackfrica alumnus Dolores Eaton, Rep. Charles Rangel of Harlem named Kelly, businessman Percy Sutton, Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Lloyd Williams, New Heritage Theatre Group executive producer Voza Rivers, Tony Rogers and others as part of an “elite group of activists” who were “the foundation for Harlem Week.”
“The first Harlem Day was in 1974 and was presented under the auspices of the Uptown Chamber of Commerce – the precursor of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce,” said Kelly, a Blackfrica founder, noting that Blackfrica members have continually been an “organizing force” in the event– from the first Harlem Day to Harlem Week today.
“In 1974, members of Blackfrica Promotions were also the staff and leadership of the chamber, and we used the chamber as the organizing umbrella for Harlem Day because the Chamber had a broader reach than one single organization,” Kelly recalled.
Blackfrica was based on a “family concept – basically friends of ours, trying to engage them, acknowledging [them] and celebrating black culture and African culture, which were really prevalent at the time,” he said.
Since the late 1960s, Kelly has personally promoted black and African culture by creating distinctive artworks on leather handbags, satchels, wallets and other accessories under the “Marvin Sin: The Art of Leather” brand for 50 years.
On an organizationally, Blackfrica “went a long way to reverse the negative trend and image that Harlem had in the early ’70s, ’80s and ’90s,” Rangel noted in his Congressional address. And Kelly concurs.
“We pulled all this together and lifted up the community of Harlem, which at the time was really rich as and vibrant but just had a bad image,” he said. “So that was kind of the genesis of Harlem Week – an event that would pull all our friends, contacts, connections and energies together in a celebratory event that, hopefully, would have some long-lasting significance.”
In addition to Harlem Day, the Blackfrica held jazz concerts, conducted black studies programs at colleges and connected with black student movements, and even created a speakers’ bureau and booking agency that sent acts – from poets to performers – all across America.
Of the Harlem Day-Harlem Week tradition, Kelly said, “It’s been a phenomenal experience and, thankfully, it still continues. At least two generations have grown up within the confines of this event, in terms of working on it when they were young folks, and now their kids are there.