The exterior of the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute

Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute Celebrates 50 Years of Black Arts

by Amanda Ong

This Saturday, Sept. 10, the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute (LHPAI) will be celebrating its 50th anniversary with a block party from 1 to 5 p.m. LHPAI’s 50th Anniversary Block Party will include food trucks and acts, including its own Teen Summer Musical, spoken word artist Arami Walker, and music from Black Stax and DJ Yaddy. The mayor and City Council will also be in attendance. But most importantly, it is an opportunity to gather with neighbors and community members.

“LHPAI has been the home to hundreds of persons of African descent, and other BIPOC communities, for the last 50 years,” royal alley-barnes, the acting director at the Office of Arts & Culture, told the South Seattle Emerald. “The gentrification in this area has been phenomenal, unprecedented, and painful, quite frankly. And so to have a narrative that has no attribution to loss, but a narrative that only celebrates the brilliance of the Black and diasporic community over 50 years, is amazing.” 

Previously, alley-barnes was the executive director of LHPAI from 2009 through 2015. Now, as the acting director at the Office of Arts & Culture, alley-barnes contributes to planning and funding of LHPAI and the nonprofit housed within it, LANGSTON. LANGSTON works to build community through support of the Black arts, and manages arts programming within LHPAI. The two collaborate for a robust public and private partnership, and now look forward to the next 50 years after this milestone.

“It’s amazing watching people who were 3 years old [and attended LHPAI] and are now 30, and they have more years of doing that,” alley-barnes said. “The parents and adults who were raising younger humans were reliant upon the efficacy of community building and social cohesion [at LHPAI], that was the 1970s circle.”

Originally a synagogue, the building was designed by B. Marcus Priteca and purchased by the city in 1971. It is a designated Seattle landmark, and was originally named the Yesler-Atlantic Community Center before its name was changed in honor of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. Throughout the past 50 years, LHPAI has provided invaluable community arts programming and space.

“I see continual growth. The big difference is that it’s not walkable,” alley-barnes said. “Those kinds of tragic occurrences come with gentrification. … [But] the Persons of Color, particularly the African American diaspora, who have been pushed and forced out of Seattle into those areas come back [to LHPAI] because it’s a point of designation. Millions and millions of human hours of excellence and brilliance build and continue to curate it.”

With a range of arts programming and events centered on Black artists and the Black community, it is clear that LHPAI is a landmark for Black arts. Over the past 50 years, opportunities to have authentic narratives building on tradition have created generational opportunities. 

“Quite frankly, and I’ll speak for the Black community, often we don’t remember or understand how invested a community in the public sector can be in meeting the needs, in this case, artistically, of a specific diaspora,” alley-barnes said. “And so [LHPAI] is a really amazing example of that. Going forwards to the next 50 years, to have both LANGSTON the nonprofit as well as Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute curating aspects of public access continues. They don’t need a third party organization to tell them what to do, they have a third party — and that’s the community.”

As a public facility, LHPAI has been open to the community as makers and creators, and provides access to a wide range of education and participation in arts and culture. For an arts center to have such a strong partnership with the community for 50 years is an incredible and rare feat, and one that clearly has made a lasting impact for generations. 

“The passion and compassion that we need to build a civic society, the arts do that hands down,” alley-barnes said. “If the arts go away, society goes away; you can look wherever you want to, it’s history. And so what’s so important to me about [LHPAI] is that it’s about building our future now, in order to be connecting going forward and to assure that there’s a pathway for people to know how to enter the arts, what to do with arts, to know that the narratives can be authentic.” 

Join the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute for its 50th anniversary celebration on Sept. 10 from 1 to 5 p.m. at 104 17th Ave. S.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: A Central District hub for arts, community, and culture, the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute (LHPAI) celebrates its 50th anniversary this Saturday, Sept. 10, with a free block party featuring food, music, and live performances. (Photo courtesy of the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture)

Before you move on to the next story …
The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With over 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible. 
If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn't have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference. 
We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!