Tales from the Oral History Collections: Joyce Braden Harris

December 29, 2020

By Sarah Stroman

In 1971, Joyce Braden Harris, a longtime educator and prominent member of Portland’s Black community, initiated a community Kwanzaa celebration at the Black Educational Center, which grew over the years to involve a number of organizations and countless families. Photograph by Steve Guernsey, OHS Research Library, Skanner photograph collection, Org. Lot 1286, box 16, folder 7.

Sometimes when interviews grow long, great stories are buried alive under mountains of technical information, political drama, and judicial minutiae. Sometimes they’re sweet, sometimes they’re funny, and sometimes they’re terrifying. But all of them are worth a few minutes of your time.

From the depths of the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) Research Library oral history collections, Dear Oregon brings you a miniseries highlighting some of those hidden moments.

Today we’re unearthing a story from Joyce Braden Harris, a longtime educator and prominent member of Portland’s Black community. She was one of the founders of the Black Education Center, which provided free summer classes to Black youth. It later became a full-time private school in 1974.

The following excerpt (that we lightly edited for clarity) is a tale Harris told during a 2018 interview conducted by Jan Dilg (SR 1786, Session 2). In the interview, Harris describes her involvement in the annual Kwanzaa celebrations held in Portland, when the holiday was still young in the 1970s.

Harris: So, with Kwanzaa, we started — there was a gentleman, a family, in the community who did Kwanzaa — that second year [of the operation of the Black Educational Center]…1971. And then we took it on as a school and said: “We’ve got to do Kwanzaa.” And I have been coordinating the community Kwanzaa now since ’71, ’72, every year.

The Black Educational Center [BEC] would do all seven days of Kwanzaa. And it’s not a myth, but every year during Kwanzaa, around the fourth of fifth night, I would always get sick because I would just wear myself out. And then, finally, I decided, let’s not do the seventh day; let’s just encourage people to spend that with their family and with their friends recommitting themselves. So that worked. And then we used to do the sixth night, which is the big feast. And we would do all of the cooking, so we’d be up half the night. Eventually we realized that we were the victims of our own success because when Kwanzaa was new to people, they would come to our events. But then people began to do it in their homes, which is what you want them to do.

A.A. Wells lights a candle during a 1991 Kwanzaa celebration held at Tubman Middle School in Portland, Oregon, photograph by Julie Keefe. OHS Research Library, Skanner photograph collection, Org. Lot 1286, box 33, folder 14.
In this December 17, 1991, photograph, Bishop A.A. Wells lights a candle representing Imani in the Kwanzaa celebration. This celebration took place at Tubman Middle School during Self Enhancement Inc.’s fourth annual Winter Rally. The seven candles in the kinara symbolize the seven nights and seven principles of Kwanzaa ― unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Photograph by Julie Keefe. OHS Research Library, Skanner photograph collection, Org. Lot 1286, box 33, folder 14.

And so finally, I said, you know, let’s see if there are any organizations or groups who would want to take on one night of Kwanzaa. And so that worked. So now, I always do the first day of Kwanzaa. I mean, I figure that’s my privilege to get people off on the right foot with the theme. Then the North Portland Branch Library, under Patricia Welch’s leadership, started doing a day of Kwanzaa, and they pretty much always focus on children’s themes. And then the House of Umoja, a couple of years ago, they approached me. So, they do a night. And it’s a real nice night because there’s a jazz group that comes and performs.

I got to the point where I have two Kwanzaa kits — I have one that is my home one, but I was having to take it with me and set it up. Finally, I said, no, these people need to get their own Kwanzaa set up. And so they did. People get the kinara and the candles and all of that. That made it much easier on me because I didn’t have to haul things every night. And then, a couple of years ago, the Diverse and Empowered Employees of Portland approached me and said they wanted to do a night of Kwanzaa, if I could just do the candle lighting and all of that. So, I have been doing that for the City of Portland. And this young woman who works with Maranatha Church, she started about three years ago.

Kwanzaa celebration items, 1993, photograph by Steve Meltzer. OHS Research Library, Skanner photograph collection, Org. Lot 1286, box 33, folder 14.
Kwanzaa is the celebration of African American heritage, pride, community, family, and culture. Items that are typically part of Kwanzaa celebrations are pictured here in this 1993 photograph taken at the Northwest Folklife World Market. The unity cup (right background) is used to toast and serve libations to ancestors. Corn, or maize (lower left), represents children and a collective hope for their future. Additionally, during Kwanzaa, a gift exchange signifies parents’ commitment to their children. Photograph by Steve Meltzer. OHS Research Library, Skanner photograph collection, Org. Lot 1286, box 33, folder 14.

And so it’s just been wonderful; it has been amazing. I actually partnered with [the] Matt Dishman [Community Center] because that is where we originally would do it. At first, we did it at the BEC, but we ran out of space, so the first night of Kwanzaa is always at Matt Dishman. And it’s nice because people know that. There are people that I may not see the whole year, but I can count on [seeing]. There’s a guy from Vancouver, Washington, who is a drummer — I may not see Reggie for the whole year — but I can count on him being at the first night of Kwanzaa. So, this year, same thing. I’ve got five straight nights of Kwanzaa.

I’ve gone down to L.A. [Los Angeles] — I went down a couple of years ago for the 50th anniversary of the creation of the principles, because I know [Maulana Karenga], the founder of Kwanzaa….It’s just amazing to see how, here we are a little city like Portland. We’re not New York, we’re not L.A., but we’ve been able to sustain the celebration of Kwanzaa.

…[W]hen I begin to think about the things that I have done that have been not just meaningful for me, but to the community, Kwanzaa definitely is one of those things. People come to Kwanzaa, and what’s just amazing is that now there are young people who used to be five years old, who celebrated Kwanzaa, and now they’re bringing their children. And that is passing on traditions and knowing that you’ve had an impact on people in a profound way. It’s the ultimate in bringing a smile on my face. Yeah.

You can listen to all of Joyce Braden Harris’s interview on OHS Digital Collections.

Copyright for this interview is held by the Oregon Historical Society. . Use is allowed according to the following statement: Creative Commons - BY-NC-SA: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/

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