The Mann Center for the Performing Arts will host its first festival of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in May, which it intends to make a biannual event.
On Sunday, May 20, representatives from at least 10 HBCUs will be at the Mann Center introducing their schools to teenagers, college students, and potential returning adults. The day will be music-driven as the Mann will feature performances by marching bands, drumlines, and choirs from HBCUs.
“There certainly are other HBCU gatherings, so I don’t want to suggest that we’re alone in this,” said Mann president and CEO Catherine Cahill. “But what we’re doing with all the music, and bringing together this incredible full day of so many activities, is a first.”
Admission to the Mann’s 22-acre campus on the May 20 festival will be free to all. It is supported by TD Bank.
The festival will be preceded on Friday night with a ticketed performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Mann Center accompanied by the Morgan State University Choir, and then on Saturday by a dinner and panel discussion with presidents of local HBCUs Delaware State, Cheyney, and Lincoln universities.
One of the festivals’ headline performing groups will be the Jeremy Winston Chorale International, based in Dayton, Ohio, a choir of mostly graduates from HCBUs who can pivot between classical, gospel, and R&B music.
Winston, its founder and director who grew up in Philadelphia, said his group is informed by the distinctive musical traditions developed on HBCU campuses.
“That HBCU context, the HBCU style and HBCU spirit,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to say exactly what that is. You just kind of feel something in the moment and you go with it. It really is similar to jazz, but in a different way. It’s very special.”
Winston will also teach a free masterclass on chorale singing at the festival. The Mann’s chief education and communication officer, Naomi Gonzalez, said musicians from Stillman College, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, will also teach a class in drumline.
“As a product of a violin that got me a scholarship to college, learning how to play a drum or being able to be in a choir can be a ticket to college,” she said.
The festival was announced at Cristo Rey High School, an independent Catholic school in Philadelphia’s Logan neighborhood with a predominately Black student body. Most of its graduates go to college, sometimes all of them.
Kayla Waples, a senior, has not yet decided where to go for college. She has toured the historically Black Morgan State University in Baltimore, and has earned scholarships at both the historically Black Coppin State University, also in Baltimore, and Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Speaking to the student body at an HBCU pep rally at Cristo Rey before Friday morning classes, Waples said she is leaning toward Coppin.
“It made me feel more comfortable to know that I could be around a lot of other people who look like me, and study alongside other people who look like me,” she said.
HBCUs have been graduating highly educated and successful Black professionals since the mid-19th century, but many are chronically underfunded, facing dire financial conditions. Part of the Mann’s mission with the festival is to help make these colleges and universities more viable options in the eyes of high school students.
“We have so many incredible universities and colleges in Philadelphia – we’re known as the ‘Eds and Meds’ city. But HBCUs are not often considered in that mix,” said Cahill. “We wanted to make sure we put a spotlight on them and give our young people an opportunity to see what’s possible. If you can’t see it, you can’t believe it.”
Winston, wearing a sweatshirt of his alma mater, Oakwood University of Huntsville, Alabama – he later went to grad school at Morgan State – said the vitality of the United States’ Black population is tied to the vitality of its HBCUs.
“When we think of the life and the survivability of this HBCU, we’re also talking about the health of the Black community in general,” he said. “These institutions have been making sure that they educate and graduate some of the greatest engineers, doctors, lawyers, professors in the African American community.”
Title sponsor TD Bank said it intends to sponsor the HBCU festival at the Mann Center every other year, ongoing.
“Every two years sounds about right,” said Shelley Sylva, TD’s head of corporate citizenship. “It’s been a lot of work to get this right, and when we do something we want to make sure it has an impact.”