The story goes that Valerie Lewis, now known as Miss Val around the Hamilton Hill Arts Center, walked into the place when she was 4 and hasn't left since.
"No, no, I was older than 4," says Lewis, laughing. "But it's been a very long time, and it's been a wonderful experience, an adventure, a journey. I knew I always had a home away from home at this place."
For thousands of Schenectadians growing up in that section of the city over the past half century, the Hamilton Hill Arts Center was an invaluable part of their childhood. For many it was a place to learn and make new friends. For some it was a safe refuge, and for others it was a peak into the outside world. Saturday at Proctors from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., the not-for-profit arts group will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a day-long celebration called, "Sankofa: The Legacy."
"Arts and culture are fun, but they're also vital to who we are and how we experience our lives," said Rachel Conn, director of the HHAC. "Learning our history and our culture is how we hold on to the wisdom of our ancestors and how we create our future. That's who we are as an organization, and we want this celebration to be an affirmation of that."
A Ghanaian term, Sukofa, refers to a celebration of African arts and culture. Saturday's event will offer plenty of ways to do that and be entertained, including a variety of music, food, dancing and theater options. It will also be a remembrance of HHAC founder Margaret Cunningham, Conn's grandmother, who died two years ago at the age of 97. Conn is the third generation family member to be at the helm of the Schenectady Street facility. While there have been other directors, Miki Conn, Rachel's mother and Cunningham's daughter, was also a long-time director of the place and remains involved.
"We did a video 10 years ago to celebrate our 40th anniversary, and we interviewed a lot of the adults that went through the center," said Miki Conn, who took over from her mother in the 1990s. "We asked them what had the biggest impact on them out of all the activities they had here, and they all said it was the cultural education. It was that history of Black people that they didn't get in their schools that they really treasured. It was the cultural education that had the most impact."
The center's current home is at 409 Schenectady Street, but when Cunningham got the place off the ground back in 1968 it was just around the corner on Hamilton Street. Lee, now the "Artreach" Coordinator, showed up just a few years later.
"I would go there and sit outside the storefront window and look at the big potter's wheel they had," said Lewis. "I didn't go in because I think you had to be 8 and I was too young. But I finally worked up the nerve and if they asked me how old I was I was going to lie. I thought I was going to get into trouble."
Lewis needn't have worried. She walked through the front door and was met by Cunningham, a woman not quite yet in her 50s with two daughters of her own but plenty of love and good will to share with others.
"She was motherly, she was like a grandmother, and she was so kind and sweet," said Lewis. "She was always giving, and had a kind voice full of wisdom. She showed you how to appreciate the small things in life."
With the help of her husband James and others in the community, Margaret made the Hamilton Hill Arts Center work. Val Lewis's mother, Mary B. Lewis, was an early board member, and family names like Dean, Tucker, Carter and Loveless, to name just a few, were all integral parts of the centers' early success. There have been financial struggles, a few quick turnovers at the top, but the Conn family has remained through it all a steady and calming influence. Fabayo Egunbunmi is the current president of the board for the HHAC and has been involved with the group for more than 10 years now.
"I heard about the Conn family when I moved here from Chicago and met them at a religious celebration," said Egunbunmi. "I got to know them, and got adopted in a way. Any time you start associating with the family you're going to start working or volunteering for the arts center. There's no getting around it."
Miki Conn had received a college education at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and then headed off to Kenya with her husband as her mom was starting up her new experiment on Hamilton St.
"I heard, mostly through letters, that they had opened up an arts center," remembered Conn. "They were aware of the black arts movement, and had come up with this idea about an arts and cultural center. By the time I came back to Schenectady it had already become a fixture in the community. Originally they thought it would just be a summer program, but at the end of that first summer they realized they needed to continue throughout the year."
It wasn't easy. Margaret Cunningham knew nothing about raising money for a non-profit when she started the organization, but with the help of her husband, Dr. James Cunningham, the first black psychiatrist in the Capital Region, she succeeded.
"When you run a non-profit in a poor community you're always going to be dealing with disappointment and frustration," said Miki Conn, who lost her father in 2015 a year before her mother passed away. "My mom knew nothing about writing grant applications, but with the help of some volunteers and my dad's pocketbook she did it."
Rachel Conn was there when she was 3 taking African dance lessons.
"Our mission is to promote the knowledge, preservation and continued development of the African diaspora," she said. "When I was a kid I didn't really appreciate all that this place did. When I became a parent myself, and was trying to figure out how to make Schenectady the kind of place I wanted my daughter to grow up in, then I really started to appreciate it more. When I went to college, I still always had the arts center in my head. I took extra courses in non-profit management. This place is like a child to us, and that's why this family has always given so many hours to it."
Children can sign up for regularly scheduled classes or just drop in and work on arts and crafts with Lewis.
"The first day I went in there I made some jewelry," said Lewis. "I've had a love of jewelry ever since. There are pottery classes, films, cultural enrichment. The first time I ever went to a baseball game, the Mets, it was with the arts center. We all got on the bus and went to New York. We also went on trips to museums. I've made a lot of connections and had associations with friends and schoolmates, and they were all made stronger because of the Hamilton Hill Arts Center. It's really been my home away from home."
'Sankofa: They Legacy'
WHAT: A 50th anniversary celebration of the Hamilton Hills Arts Center
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $25 for main stage events; $10 for Sci-Fi film festival, $30 for both; free tickets include Poetry Slam, Fashion Show, Drum Circle, workshops and more; children attend free with an adult
MORE INFO: Visit www.hamiltonhillartscenter.org, or visit their Facebook page