Dr. Barbara Ann Teer left a promising career as a performer in 1968 during the movement of civil revolutionaries at the prodding of her sister, civil rights activist Fredrica L. Teer. Frederica had been an organizer with Eldridge Cleaver and Stockley Carmichael. As an artist surrounded by revolutionaries, Dr. Teer was determined to contribute to the movement through what she considers the life force of the entire world - The Arts. She believed that there is a spiritual value and learning in the arts and through spiritual discovery there is love and grace.
Resolute in her personal journey to create something to discover her own history and share it with others, she began making several trips to Africa, Haiti and Ghana to research and codify her endeavor. In 1972 she received a Ford Foundation fellowship to visit Africa and further her research into the “phenomenon of the culture of soul.” Those trips abroad helped Dr. Teer realize that there was no separation. That people of African descent have been connected all along and that the memory is very active. She believed that once reconnected to one’s authentic culture, the healing can begin.
“How are you going to have a people who are the original people, who have built all this phenomenal civilization and they don’t know who they are?” she shared during her first interview with us.
Dr. Teer maintained that building a strong cultural leadership composed of entrepreneurial artists would bring forth dignity and autonomy in the community. The Teer philosophy, which lives on
in many, is to create the standard, institutionalize the standard, then create a home to house and sustain that art form.
She explained that, “Because our culture has never been codified we are unable to see the value in our artful expression, so we give it away. Through our music and dance, we have absolutely healed this planet on a level of refined grace. Sophisticated cultures know that.”
In 1983, Dr. Teer purchased the property on Fifth Avenue and 125th Street now known as The National Black Theatre - which covers the block. Her theory behind the real estate purchase was to generate income to subsidize the program, diminishing the dependency on grants. She believed that ownership was a way to take control of her own destiny. By that vision, The National Black Theatre has become the first and largest revenue generating Black arts complex in the country.
Born in predominantly Black East St. Louis, Illinois to a supportive family of educators, entrepreneurs and activist during the era Black folks were beginning to let their cultural pride be known created Dr. Teer’s foundation. Her career began in New York as a teacher at Wadleigh Junior High School which led to the Group Theatre Workshop - foundation for the Negro Ensemble Company. She has countless awards which can be found online or in her book written by Professor Lundeana Marie Thomas. She was once married to the late famous comedian Godfrey Cambridge and has left behind a son and a daughter and countless admirers.
I remember sitting at Dr. Teer’s feet for my first big interview in Harlem for the debut of Harlem Torch Magazine business edition in 2000. Perhaps Dr. Barbara Ann Teer brought a message that many people weren’t quite ready to absorb. She understood the power of soul force and the power of the arts - she also understood the money system as a numbers game, and saw real estate as the only “real” way to help finance and house the art form in which she so passionately embraced. During the time of our interview I too was a bit naïve to her ideas. Although now I understand fully, at that time she patiently took me through each idea with clarity, explaining history, spirituality, civil rights and social injustice. Dr. Teer also spoke directly to what I searched for - self identity and purpose. She had so much more to teach us.