BERKELEY -- Black culture from Ghana to Berkeley was showcased Feb. 8 at the city's first Black History Month celebration, "Harambee! A Community Coming Together: African, then American."

"It's important to know what our culture is and to share it with others," said Ken Tramiel, co-president of the event held at the Berkeley Community Theatre and sponsored by the Berkeley Juneteenth Association with partner organizations, including the city.

Interviewed in the theater lobby, which had been transformed into a marketplace of book, jewelry, food, clothing and information stalls -- rain kept the event inside -- Tramiel underscored how important it is for people to understand that black history isn't just about enslavement, but about the history of people in Africa and achievements since Africans were brought to the United States. "It's about human will and human dignity," he said.

The band Akayaa Azule plays music from Africa  photo/Judith Scherr
The band Akayaa Azule plays music from Africa photo/Judith Scherr

Inside the theater, the Akayaa Atule Band shared music from Ghana, Berkeley High School students danced "Break the Chains," Oakland artist Kev Choice performed jazz and rap.

Emcees read the poetry of Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou and quizzed the audience on factoids in African American history.

What's Junteenth? Someone in the audience called out correctly that on June 19, 1865 enslaved people in Galveston, Texas learned they were free -- two years after their freedom had been ordered.

Who was the first African American teacher in Berkeley? Ruth Acty, hired in 1943. And who was the first black assemblyman from Northern California? Byron Rumford, elected 1948.

Community activist Willie Phillips said that knowing history has informed his participation in community affairs. "What we know about history helps to gauge what we know about the future and the present," he said.

"Even on the local level, I can say that many of the people who came before me, like (former Berkeley Councilwoman) Maudelle Shirek, were people that I actually knew and I also realize how important they were mainly because they made the sacrifice for me to actually be here in the first place."

Berkeley High School dancers perform a praise dance
Berkeley High School dancers perform a praise dance

Mansour Id-deen, president of the Berkeley chapter of the NAACP, stressed the need to educate black youths on African American history.

"Our history has not been properly recognized in the history books in the schools," he said, adding that understanding history is important for young people "to look at themselves in a very positive way."

Id-deen said he hoped the event would become an annual affair "so that our young people, our elders, all those folks can be reminded of the greatness of African American history."