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From a seed to a tree

After graduating from Temple University’s School of Sport, Tourism, and Hospitality Management (Philadelphia, PA), Ms. Morris returned to her hometown of Boston to learn that there was not a large-scale festival that celebrated, included or elevated Black artists and their creative capital. Determined to change the narrative, Catherine decided to enroll at Simmons University, wherein taking a business plan writing course, she conducted an environmental scan of Boston only to confirm what she had already known since a child. Tired and frustrated by the racial and social conditions of her City (lack of public funding for the arts, racism, rapid incarceration, gentrification, white-owned venues, and the killings of black bodies, etc); and the countless stories from Black artists, residents and visitors about Boston “not being a place for Black people'', Catherine decided to create Boston Art & Music Soul Festival to provide equitable access and opportunity for underserved audiences, and artists of color to collaborate and experience high-quality arts and music programming that reflected their culture, creativity, dreams and beliefs. 

Ms. Morris invested $22,000 of her personal savings to start the non-profit organization, in which she was introduced to four (4) Black artists (Valerie Stephens, Latrell James, Obehi Janice and Deu Almeida) who believed in her vision and mission.

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N​amed "Best Music Festival" by Boston Magazine, Boston Art & Music Soul (BAMS) Festival is one of the fastest growing urban, multi-disciplinary arts festivals in the City of Boston that celebrates Afro-centric identity and Black artistry, all while amplifying the voices and creative contributions from local, regional and national entertainers of color. As a 10-year initiative with the City of Boston's Office of Arts & Culture, the expansion of this festival is expected to attract over 75,000 festival goers from the east coast, with inclusions of multiple stages, genres of music and various artistic mediums that reflect the true diversity of our ever-changing City of Boston, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the world!

Taking place in June during National Black Music Appreciation Month, Boston Art & Music Soul (BAMS) Festival is situated inside Franklin Park Playstead Field. Since its debut in June 2018, the Festival has grown from 2,200 attendees in its first year to 10,600+ attendees in June 2022, totaling 20,000+ spectators; has presented 90 performing, recording and visual artists; supported 60+ minority-owned businesses; and has received close to 13,000 local and global applications for the chance to perform at the Festival. 

Festival Location - Franklin Park, Playstead Field

Designed in 1885 by American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., he envisioned Franklin Park to be a place for shared exchanges and interactions, bringing all walks of life together and improving the lives of the people it was created for.  


Today, Franklin Park is considered the “gem” or “heartbeat” of the Boston park system, now known today as the Emerald Necklace. It is the largest outdoor public park (527 acres) that sits in and is connected to several communities of color (Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, Mattapan, Egleston Square, and Dorchester). 

Fredrick Olmstead_photo by National Asso

Constructed in 1886 and situated in (what was then called) the Ante Park, The Playstead was specifically designed for young children to play field games and general recreational sports. In 1903, atop a small hill overlooking The Playstead, Overlook Shelter was built and featured changing rooms, a space for parents to watch their children play, and a viewing area for spectators to watch sporting events below. In the 1940’s, a fire wiped out most of Overlook Shelter, which has now been named Overlook Shelter Ruins.


While a person can still make out the pathways around the then- two-story building, what would become of its new purpose emerged in 1966 by Boston activist, educator and visionary, Elma Ina Lewis, who transformed the ruins into a space for Black creativity, culture, convening, civic engagement, community mobilizing, and performances for her community.

Frederick Law Olmsted Sr.. Photo by the National Association for Olmsted Parks

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Playstead 1903 (NPS Olmsted NHS) 

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Playstead Overlook Shelter, 1902 (NPS Olmsted NHS)  

Elma Ina Lewis
All Hail to the Queen of Boston Black Arts

Born on September 15, 1921 (died on January 1, 2004), Elma Ina Lewis, she was the daughter of two parents that immigrated from Barbados to Boston in the early 20th century. Her parents were followers of the teachings of Marcus Garvey, which is where she attained her sense of racial pride and desire to promote African culture through her work. Due to her lifelong commitment to black excellence, education, and the arts, Miss Lewis was nationally and internationally recognized as a visionary, a bridge and arts leader, and an educator.  Elma attended Roxbury Memorial High School for Girls where she honed her vocal, piano, and dancing skills. In 1943, she received her Bachelors of Art from Emerson University (now Emerson College), and received her Masters of Education from Boston University a year later. 


While in Boston, she founded the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts (ELSFA) in 1950, which emphasized music and dance, produced many students who found work in Broadway musicals, and who built professional careers in the theater. Among such students were Kenneth Scott who was The Wiz on Broadway, and Leslie Barrow who built a distinguished career dancing and teaching dance in Germany. At its peak, it enrolled about 700 students, with 100 teachers on staff.  


Lewis in 1975 with dance class at Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts.

Image: Northeastern University Archives & Special Collections


Elma Lewis in 1966 with students at entrance of Franklin Park Zoo 

The Boston Globe/Gilbert E Friedberg

In the 1960s, Miss Lewis mobilized her students and local community members to clean up an overgrown area in Franklin Park - Overlook Shelter Ruins to then launch the Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park, an open-air performance venue that presented free nightly performances includes musical legends such as Odetta, Billy Taylor, Michael Babatunde Olatunji and Duke Ellington.

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Playstead Overlook Shelter in Franklin Park, 1889. A fire in the 1940s burned all of the structure except for the stone ruins. Courtesy Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

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In 1966, Lewis organized volunteers to clean up the Overlook Ruins and build a stage there. For two months she presented musicians, actors and dancers of all genres and styles.

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Summer stage for Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park c. 1970-80. 

Images: Northeastern University Archives & Special Collections


Audience at Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park c. 1970-80. Images: Northeastern University Archives & Special Collections

In 1968, Miss Lewis also founded the National Center of Afro-American Artists (NCAAA), located in Roxbury, Massachusetts (now a predominant Black community). The Center developed and offered “a unique teaching program that emphasized character-building, craft mastery and multi-disciplinary arts instruction integrated through performance and exhibitions”. Ultimately, Miss Lewis’ goal was to “bring together in one complex the best in teaching and professional performance and practice, while affirming a commitment to accessible arts and cultural heritage”.


As a result of Miss Lewis’ work, many legendary figures came to the NCCAA for her students, including activist and professional boxer, Muhammad Ali, actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, musicians Thomas Dorsey, Mary Lou Williams and Eubie Blake, civic leader Leon Sullivan, singers Eartha Kitt, and Nina Simone.

The Legacy Continues...

For Boston, Miss Lewis’s unwavering spirit, power, presence and vision coupled with Marcus Garvey’s philosophy of self-reliance and nationalism, all have paved the way to “empower and dignify black creative and intellectual development, and celebrate black artistic genius on the world stage.”  


For the world, Miss Lewis’s school, community organizations and the NCAAA’s local, national and world-renown performances, all inspired thousands of people directly to be themselves unapologetically. As a result of her vision and work, Elma Ina Lewis received her national flowers with honors such as the Presidential Medal for Art presented to her by President Ronald Reagan, and her designation as a Fellow in the first group of John D. and Catherine T. McArthur Foundation Awardees.


For our Founder, Catherine T. Morris, choosing to situate Boston Art & Music Soul Festival adjacent to Franklin Park Overlook Shelter Ruins was in part to pay homage to Elma Lewis’ legacy of Playhouse in the Park. Since the 1960’s, Franklin Park Playstead has become the nexus of Blackness, humanity, and belonging; as well as a meeting place and epicenter of creative brilliance and cultural programming, including the Bike & Kite Festival, the Puerto Rican Festival, the Haitian Day Parade, and the Boston Caribbean Carnival. Ms. Morris and her organization are proud to stand on the broad shoulders of Miss Lewis and carry the torch that she created for future Black generations to excel and thrive in the arts.

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