History of Kwanzaa at North Portland Library

The North Portland Library has been participating in community-wide Kwanzaa celebrations since 2000. Educator and community leader Joyce Harris has been a staple for Kwanzaa in Portland since the early years of celebrations, dating back to the early 1970s in someone’s home. Ms. Joyce had already been planning and organizing seven days of Kwanzaa events each year before reaching out to the library in the early 2000s.

Book display for Kwanzaa

"I finally got to the point where I said, let me ask community groups if they might take on the responsibility of planning a night. And, of course, the library stepped up and said oh yeah, we will do a date. And it became very focused because the library always developed a children-centered program. So there were arts and crafts and different activities for kids," says Ms. Joyce.

Celebrations happened every year, and Ms. Joyce would always talk to the library first to ensure that the date and time would benefit families who wanted to attend the celebrations.

People came not just from the immediate North Portland community but also from other suburbs outside of Portland. "There are a lot of folks that would celebrate Kwanzaa in other places. But quite frankly, they came to this area and were starved for cultural activities, so this was a whole week of wonderful things," says Patricia Welch, former library administrator at North Portland Library.

Throughout the years, Kwanzaa celebrations occurred at the Matt Dishman Community Center, the Black Educational Center and the North Portland Library. Other participating organizations included Bridge Builders and the City of Portland.

Kwanzaa was a city-wide event and the library was just one participating location. The library displayed art exhibits and book displays throughout Kwanzaa.

The library was one of the places where people knew there would be a Kwanzaa, and they looked for it.
Joyce Harris

Among the performances at the yearly events were dance troupes, poets, chefs, musicians and internationally recognized quilt artists like Adrienne Cruz.

"Talented artists, folks from the community, would just come in and lend their talents. The library is privileged to be allowed to participate in what was already a wonderful cultural tradition," says Ms. Patricia.

Ms. Joyce and Ms. Patricia worked together for many years on the community-wide Kwanzaa celebrations. Together, they created programming that created a sense of belonging and community.

"A part of our mission was to uplift African American literature and culture, so we were just very fortunate that a tradition had already been established and we were welcomed into it," says Ms. Patricia.

The library celebrated Kwanzaa in person at the North Portland Library in December 2022 after two years of virtual events. There were poetry readings, cooking demonstrations and Malian-inspired crafts.

The Library is grateful to Ms. Joyce and Ms. Patricia for the many years of planning Kwanzaa celebrations in the community. With the foundation they built, a new generation of library staff and community members can lead and join in the celebrations of Kwanzaa for the years to come.