Founder of Boston's African American Ball embraces "full circle" moment

BOSTON - The African American Ball was Michael Blakely's offering to his community in the wake of a tragedy. He had been taking care of his elderly mother at the time and came home to take a shower. He turned on the news and saw yet another story about young shooting victims in Mattapan. It crushed him. "I'm viewing the fact of these mothers and people in the street crying. And I'm standing in front of the television myself crying," Blakely said.

He asked God what he could do-beyond what he was already doing-to help people heal and support families. Blakely said, "The Spirit spoke to me and said, 'Why not create an African American Ball?'"

On February 17, the event that Michael has been building ever since, will celebrate its 15th anniversary. The ball celebrates African culture, honors people who support the Black community and provides scholarships for college-bound students in need.

Paris Figuereo, a 2023 scholarship recipient, is studying nursing at Rutgers University. Growing up she says none of her doctors or nurses was Black. "I want to be a part of that change that we want to see in the medical field," she explained. "I want kids to see a nurse that looks like them."

Michael Blakely, founder of Boston's African American Ball / Credit: CBS Boston
Michael Blakely, founder of Boston's African American Ball / Credit: CBS Boston

Michael says producing the ball gives him hope as it celebrates the community's strength, resilience, and positivity. "The community really comes out," he says smiling. "I don't reinvent the wheel. I add spokes for the next one... So it's a little different every time."

The ball showcases talented young artists. Musicians from Berklee College of Music perform. Dancers from Stajez Cultural Arts Center pump up the crowd. Designers, including 17-year-old Mussaudiq (Auddi) Abdulluh, who is making his debut, create one-of-a-kind fashions for a show that, this year, will celebrate the ball's anniversary. Volunteers serve in any capacity they can.

Mayor Wu attended the 2023 African American Ball. This year, Patriots owner Robert Kraft is among the honorees.

There is no shortage of excitement for an event that seeks to elevate attendees and artists alike. And yet, Michael says producing the ball is challenging. He fundraises and solicits sponsors himself. He is grateful for the longtime support of people, groups and businesses who recognize the event's positive impact and wishes there were more. "The's very discouraging sometimes," Michael explains with a tear in his eye. "As a Black man I have been through many doors that have just been closed regardless of what I bring to the table. Those doors still get closed to me."

But even closed doors don't stop Michael Blakely. He is undaunted in his determination to celebrate his community and he knows how to produce an event. (This reporter was struck by the meticulously organized binder of clippings, photographs and programs from decades of celebrations.) He traveled the world as an assistant to Reverend Ike, an American minister and evangelist who died in 2009.

For 17 years, he produced Steppin' Out, a fundraiser for Dimock Community Health Center. And every year, he organizes both a Mother's Day event and a Father's Day gathering to bring Roxbury families together. The Mother's Day event is especially personal. It started with a casual gathering. Michael invited roughly a dozen friends and their mothers to his house. "We'll cook a dish. We'll feed our moms and wait on them and give them their Mother's Day present," he said.

From those humble beginnings, Michael's event is now in its 26th year. Men and boys still wait on the mothers, whom he respectfully calls, "our queens." But the meal is now served in a Seaport hotel ballroom for hundreds of women. "It gives an opportunity to families to be together around the tables. To sit in the presence of your family and friends and all the community-it is such a wonderfully welcoming thing to do," he said.

His own mother and father are never far from his thoughts. "The legacy of my parents is very, very rich," he says proudly. Michael is the twelfth of 13 children. His father worked to support the family while his mother ran the household. The Blakely home was the place for gatherings, particularly holidays. Crowded as it was, friends and neighbors were always welcome.

Michael cherishes fond memories of growing up in Bromley-Heath Housing. "We were one of the first families to live in that development. My mother wrote President Eisenhower a letter," he said. Earline Blakely wanted to secure a space for the family in the new development and went straight to the top. "She had twelve kids and one on the way. Needed decent housing."

He says she also reinvented herself once her children were old enough to take care of themselves. Earline joined the Elks Club Hospital Corps and served as the Grand Treasurer of Prince Hall, the Masonic Temple. He remembers both parents as loving, attentive, and involved in their children's lives. Michael dreams of, one day, building the Edward and Earline Creative Arts Center as a permanent tribute. "I got real family morals and values," he said. "I think that really is what helps me be who I definitely am today. So that's why I honor my parents like I do."

The Boys & Girls Club of Roxbury hosted the ball for years. Michael says, this year, God steered him toward the Museum of Fine Arts. As he works, daily, to raise the money necessary to produce the event at the MFA, he's mindful of what the venue represents. "The impact it's going to make on all of those involved... I'm very excited about it," he said.

The experience also represents a "full circle" moment. Thirty-three years ago Michael was asked to create an event that would help build a connection between the Black community and the MFA. (He says the MFA had just been rezoned out of a Roxbury zip code and into Boston.) He produced "An Evening of Elegance" in the museum's West Wing. But the museum did not build on that connection and, for years-critics say-the museum had almost no relationship with the Black community.

In 2019, it was forced to apologize for a racist incident involving Boston students and has since implemented a meaningful strategy of diversity and inclusion. With the 2024 African American Ball, Michael is again serving as a bridge between the venue and the Black community-a role he embraces and that others consider his gift.

Clothing designer Nahdra Ra, who's designing two outfits for the ball's fashion show calls her friend a visionary. "When you have someone so passionate about sharing their energy to make things better-from a small level to a big level-everything can move with love," she said.

CLICK HERE for information about the African American Ball.

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