Because of its large African American population and the presence and influence of prominent Black Nationalist individuals and organizations, the Philadelphia area has been especially active in celebrating Kwanzaa, an African cultural holiday that emerged out of the Black Nationalist Movement of the 1960s. Kwanzaa emphasizes remembering and reconstructing African identity, which was forcibly erased in the United States by enslavement of African peoples.

A black and white photograph of a teacher and a group of children lighting a candle with other Kwanzaa symbols around
Philadelphia’s large African American population led to the city’s early adoption of Kwanzaa activities. The first celebrations in Philadelphia were held in 1968. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

Created by California State University Professor Maulana Karenga (b. 1941) in 1966, Kwanzaa is a nonreligious holiday that originates from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanzaa,” meaning “first fruits of the harvest.” The holiday is fashioned to represent the various harvest festivals that take place in many African communities and is rooted in a tradition that extends back to ancient Egyptian civilization. Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26 to January 1 with each day focusing on one of seven principles that make up the Nguzo Saba—Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). While no official statistics exist, Karenga has estimated that Kwanzaa is celebrated by up to twenty-eight million people around the world.

Celebration of Kwanzaa in Philadelphia began as early as 1968, when Falaka Fattah (b. 1931) and her husband, David Fattah (b.1943), cofounded a group home for troubled African American males called the House of Umoja. This grassroots project, named after the first principle of Kwanzaa, incorporated all seven principles in daily operations as a methodology for ending gang wars in Philadelphia. The House also held an annual Kwanzaa celebration in conjunction with its anniversary. In 1969, the Urban Survival Training Institute organized one of the first large community Kwanzaa celebrations in Philadelphia. During the 1970s several cooperative groups–including the Camden Kwanzaa Committee, the Kwanzaa Planning Committee, and the Kwanzaa Cooperative–formed to organize Kwanzaa celebrations in the greater Philadelphia region.

Reginald Mtumishi (1945-2009), cofounder and chairman of the Kwanzaa Cooperative, was also an early celebrant of Kwanzaa who influenced its proliferation in Philadelphia. A student and friend of Maulana Karenga, Mtumishi brought the Kwanzaa creator to Philadelphia each year to be the keynote speaker for one of the many events he organized during the week of Kwanzaa. Additionally, Mtumishi introduced the holiday to the Philadelphia Department of Human Services and organized celebrations at the Free Library of Philadelphia each year, contributing greatly to the local growth and acceptance of the holiday.

A color photograph of Baba Abiodun in clerical dress in front of a stained glass window
Storyteller and preacher Baba Abiodun created one of the first documentaries about Kwanzaa, 1983’s Kwanzaa: The Gathering of a People. He was chair of the Kwanzaa Planning Committee from 1971 to 1974 and continued to perform in Kwanzaa festivities with the Unity Community Center’s Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble. (Unity Community Center)

Philadelphia area residents have been influential in promoting the principles and celebration of Kwanzaa both locally and internationally. In 1980 Baba Abiodun (also known as Phillip Harris, b. 1937) produced the award-winning film Kwanzaa: The Gathering of a People, one of the first major documentaries on Kwanzaa. Baba Abiodun also served as chair of the Kwanzaa Planning Committee from 1971-74 and performed as a griot (storyteller) at many Kwanzaa and African cultural events with the nationally acclaimed Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble, founded at the Unity Community Center in Camden, New Jersey, by Robert Dickerson (b. 1954) and his wife, Wanda. (b. 1957). For years, the Dickersons and their ensemble participated in Reginald Mtumishi’s Kwanzaa celebrations in Philadelphia. Following Mtumishi’s death in 2009, the Dickersons took over hosting the yearly celebration that featured the ensemble and Maulana Karenga.

While many people celebrate Kwanzaa at home with family, communal celebrating also has been emphasized. Each December, pre-Kwanzaa activities held by civic, community, religious, and education organizations have included workshops, forums, bazaars, and instructional candle lighting ceremonies to educate the community about how to celebrate Kwanzaa, provide opportunities to purchase Kwanzaa-related items, and spread information about Kwanzaa events. Celebrations have included dance drum exhibits and workshops, arts and crafts, candle-lighting ceremonies, art exhibits, storytelling, and spoken word and poetry readings.

a black and white headshot of Dr. Molefi Kete Asante
The MKA Institute, founded by Temple University’s Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, hosts an annual Kwanzaa celebration. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

Beginning in 1986, the African American Studies Department at Temple University hosted an annual Kwanzaa celebration for its students and the Philadelphia community. Molefi Kete Asante (b. 1942), chair of the department and founder of the first doctoral program in the field of Black Studies, also began an annual Kwanzaa celebration at the MKA Institute (an African think tank and nonprofit public policy organization) in conjunction with the Philadelphia chapter of Afrocentricity International. Asante’s son, M.K. Asante (b. 1982), directed the award-winning Kwanzaa documentary The Black Candle, narrated by Maya Angelou (1928-2014).

In 2013, Oshunbumi Fernandez (b. 1974), lead organizer of Philadelphia’s annual Odunde festival, collaborated with celebrated music producer Kenny Gamble (b. 1943) to start Kwanzaabration—a community event that aimed to educate children and adults about Kwanzaa and to foster a yearlong celebration of the principles of Kwanzaa. The project carried on the goals of Kwanzaa’s founders to demonstrate and defend the cultural unity of Africans both on the continent and throughout the diaspora.

Christina Afia Harris is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Africology and African American Studies at Temple University. This essay is derived from her research and her personal experience celebrating Kwanzaa. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


Kwanzaa Celebration at the African Free School, 1972

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Kwanzaa is a celebration of the African culture in the African American community. Created in 1966 in California, the nonreligious holiday is celebrated annually from December 26 to January 1. Each day of the Kwanzaa celebration focuses on one of seven principles of the holiday, known collectively as Nguzo Saba. As early as 1968, Kwanzaa celebrations were being held in Philadelphia. This 1972 photograph shows children at the African Free School in Germantown lighting a candle to symbolize the Ngoza Saba. Kwanzaa celebrations are held across the city and the symbolism of the holiday is taught in many of Philadelphia's public schools.

Dickerson Family, Founders of the Unity Community Center

Unity Community Center

Camden's Unity Community Center is involved in many of the area's Kwanzaa celebrations. The center was founded in 1983 by Wanda and Robert Dickerson (center), both natives of Philadelphia, to help at-risk communities by providing a safe, nurturing environment for the Camden area's youths. At Unity Community Center, young people can engage in performing arts and athletic activities such as dance and music ensembles, karate, and military drill teams, all with an emphasis on community and cultural history. During the Kwanzaa season, the UCC's Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble performs in Philadelphia with award-winning storyteller Baba Abiodun.

Baba Abiodun

Unity Community Center

Philadelphia residents have made national contributions to the spread and observation of Kwanzaa. One such person, seen here, is Baba Abiodun, a local preacher also known as Phillip Harris, who produced Kwanzaa: the Gathering of a People in 1980. It was one of the earliest documentaries about the holiday and, in 1983, won an award at the American Film Festival.

Aboidun, who was born in Philadelphia on the third day of Kwanzaa, travels with the Unity Community Center of Camden’s Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble as a griot or storyteller. He is a member of the National Association of Black Storytellers and chaired the Kwanzaa Planning Committee in the early 1970s. In 2007, he became a preacher at the Second Pilgrim Baptist Church in the Spring Garden neighborhood.

Dr. Molefi Kete Asante

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, professor of African American studies at Temple University, founded a local Kwanzaa celebration at the MKA Institute, an international African nonprofit public policy organization and think tank. Asante is the chair of the Department of African American Studies at Temple and created the first doctoral degree in the field. He is considered one of the most prominent Black Studies scholars in the United States and has spoken at international conferences for peace in Africa. He hosted the MKA Institute's first Kwanzaa celebration in 1986.

The African American Museum in Philadelphia

Visit Philadelphia

Kwanzaa celebrations are part of the annual program at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. The museum was founded in 1976 during the nation's Bicentennial Celebration and was the first institution dedicated to African American history to be funded by a major city. The museum's Kwanzaa celebrations include dancing, storytelling, and drumming as well as arts and crafts activities. In recent years, attendees have been encouraged to support local charity food Philabundance by bringing canned goods to donate at the Kwanzaa celebration. (Photograph by J. Fusco)

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Related Reading

Madhubuti, Haki R. Kwanzaa: A Progressive and Uplifting African American Holiday. Chicago: Third World Press, 1972.

Mayes, Keith. Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African American Holiday Tradition. London: Routledge, 2009.

Karenga, M. Ron. Kwanzaa: Origin, Concepts, Practice. Inglewood: Kawaida Publications, 1977.

Karenga, Maulana. The African American Holiday of Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community & Culture. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 1988.

Pleck, Elizabeth. “Kwanzaa: The Making of a Black Nationalist Tradition.” Journal of American Ethnic History 20, no. 4 (Summer 2001): 3-28.

Additional Sources

ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Philadelphia Tribune (1912-2001).

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