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Kay Bourne Papers Celebrate Decades of Boston’s Black Arts Community

Numerous playbills
Playbills from Boston and around the country are part of the Kay Bourne Papers at the Emerson College Archives and Special Collections.

By Jenn Williams
Head of Archives & Special Collections

Emerson College’s Archives and Special Collections was fortunate enough to add the Katherine D. Bourne Papers to its collections in 2017. They were a gift to the College from Kay Bourne, who died on January 31, 2021, at the age of 82.

For four decades, Bourne was the arts editor for the Bay State Banner, which covers Boston’s Black community. In Bourne’s obituary, Banner senior editor Yawu Miller wrote in her obituary that Bourne’s coverage was an integral part of the city’s Black arts community.

“She covered the luminaries of the community with sensitivity and respect, helping generations of artists gain recognition and reach broader audiences,” wrote Miller. 

A ticket from a play
The Kay Bourne Papers include play tickets.

Kay’s collection provides a spotlight on the important contributions the Black community has made to the arts –including theatre, film, photography, music, literature, and dance — in not only Greater Boston, but also around the country, between approximately 1890 and 2015. It does so by gathering together Bay State Banner newspaper articles, research files, programs, books, photographs, correspondence, playbills, reviews, promotional materials, and ephemera related to these topics.

“[Kay] was one of those people who just showed everybody love,” said political activist, poet, and emcee Jamarhl Crawford. He added that her articles covering Black artists in the 1960s captured an important movement which led to the founding of such institutions as the Elma Lewis School.

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These articles and related materials continue to inspire students and other researchers who are provided an intimate look at this movement, as well as important activities, events, and individuals from other decades.  

A program from the play Wedding Band by Alice Childress
A program from the play Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White by Alice Childress is part of the Kay Bourne Papers in Emerson College Archives and Special Collections.

According to Emerson alumna Elizabeth Deonarain ‘18, an archives assistant who inventoried and assisted in preserving the collection, “As someone who worked closely with the collection, I spent hours mesmerized and happily lost in the Bourne Papers. The collection is overflowing with materials of Black Bostonian history and the arts, dating as far back as the 1890s. It’s truly a testament to the power one person can have in preserving history.”

A good example can be seen in the many materials focusing on theatre. There are original letters from playwright Alice Childress discussing her life, work, and inspirations. There is also a 1972 letter from playwright and Say Brother writer/producer Hazel Bright discussing her desire to apply for the MIT Community Fellows Program, which allowed participants to create and implement a program or project focused on meeting a significant need in their community.

The theatre materials also include articles, playbills, and research files that delve in the lives of local producers, writers, performers, and nonprofit founders. A Bay State Banner article by Bourne focusing on Roxbury teacher and Unity Through Creativity Production Co., Inc. founder Karen McLean describes how she became involved in producing theater at 15. “I have three younger brothers,” she is quoted as saying, “and I saw that they needed something positive and creative to do. So I put together a children’s theatrical group with them and 14 other children in the projects.” 

A musical festival postcard, a concert program, clip of a newspaper article, and a concert advertisement
The Kay Bourne Papers include musical festival programs, newspaper clippings, and concert advertisements.

Although the majority of the collection dates from 1966 to 2015, there are quite a few original materials documenting the earlier history of Black artists in the area. This includes playbills, scripts, musical scores, and images, including an early 20th-century scrapbook containing newspaper clippings and programs from local and nationally recognized performances. Combined with the collection’s more modern materials, researchers will find a plethora of information regarding the robust Black arts community.

The Emerson College Archives & Special Collections is continuing to catalog and preserve this valuable collection so that it will be available to researchers well into the future.

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