Harry Belafonte keynotes St Paul Foundation’s 75th anniversary dinner

Freedom fighter says schools without music, arts are ineffective

Harry Belafonte
Harry Belafonte


On October 8, 2015, The St. Paul Foundation celebrated their 75th anniversary with a private, invitation-only, free dinner at the A’bulae Event Center in St. Paul. The keynote for the occasion was singer/songwriter/actor/producer/civil and human rights activist and freedom fighter Harry Belafonte, a.k.a. “The King of Calypso.” The St. Paul Foundation’s theme for the event was “Celebrating Years of Generosity.”

The St. Paul Foundation, now the 14th-largest community foundation in the country, was formed in 1940 by a group of concerned Minnesota business leaders who lived through a devastating economic downturn. One of their long-term goals was to safeguard the community against suffering if and when another economic downturn occurred.

Over the past 75 years, the foundation has been committed to transforming the community and providing support in places for which government sometimes has no interest in providing.

Dr. Eric J. Jolly took on the role of president/CEO of the St. Paul Foundation’s Minnesota Philanthropy Partners during the summer of 2015. “It is no coincidence that on our 75th anniversary, we called upon one of the greatest leaders in civil rights and human rights,” said Jolly in his introduction of Belafonte.

Jolly continued by referring to Belafonte as a man that showed up for various organizations and causes, such as the American Indian Movement, UNICEF (which has honored him as a Goodwill Ambassador), Amnesty International (which gave him its Ambassador of Conscience Award), the Peace Corps (he is an honoree), and he was key to the release of Nelson Mandela.

Belafonte fought apartheid in South Africa and marched in Washington, DC in 1963 as a confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Somewhere on the side he had a career.” said Jolly.

Belafonte told the audience of a conversation he had with his staff about coming to Minnesota for the event. One staffer said to Belafonte that he picked an easy one; he would be preaching to the converted or preaching to the choir.

“I reflected on that point of view for a minute,” said Belafonte. “I recalled something that Dr. King said on several occasions: ‘You may think that I’m just preaching to the choir. The fact of the matter is that if I stop preaching to the choir, they’ll stop singing,’” to which the audience laughed and applauded.

Belafonte’s message began with sharing moments of his life, like when he started his entertainment career, working with the American Negro Theater with acting legends such as Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier. As a singer, he worked with legendary musicians such as Charlie Parker, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Max Roach. Somewhere in the middle of his message, Belafonte made a statement that shifted the focus.

“Community is everything. The possibilities are vast,” he said and began to express his disappointment and concerns about politicians who have decided to remove the art and music programming from public schools. “It is through arts that I know the Jew. It is through arts that I know the Irish. It’s through arts that I know the African.”

Belafonte asked everyone to reexamine how and what they give, encouraging them to push themselves and stretch themselves a little more.

“War is the proof that our citizens are overlooked,” he said in closing. “Overlooking them, we pay a price. You decided to fill a space that has made the curriculum in our schools ineffective and insufficient. Those kids with nowhere to go after school because art and music [are no longer there]; they become actively engaged in things that are done outside the law. We need to turn up the heat. We have to change the way politics does business in this country. We are the instrument by which politics can be changed.”

Belafonte received a standing ovation; then the floor was opened for questions. The last question came from a woman that described herself as a Catholic Christian. She was concerned about the Black prison population and wanted to know where are the Black men and fathers?

“I assume that you raised that question in good faith,” answered Belafonte. “Therefore, I will attempt to answer in good faith. The Black men who are supposed to be in attendance with children, [those who are] roaming aimlessly around in our communities doing mischief and going to prison, are all unemployed and under-educated. They have been denied access to the treasury of opportunity.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Where are the Black fathers,’ as [if] somehow they had a choice, without challenge. We are constantly being challenged. We came from slavery, which was the first declaration that this country had about benevolence or about its caring for our deeper humanity. [There are] 100 years of segregation and laws creating a purpose for incarceration and containment and fixing it so people of color will never be able to extricate themselves.”

Belafonte closed by saying that more prisons are not the answer.


James L. Stroud, Jr. welcomes reader responses to jlswriter@gmail.com.