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Kay Bourne, ‘a true champion’ of Boston’s Black arts community, dies at 82

Mrs. Bourne covered the arts in the Roxbury area.
Mrs. Bourne covered the arts in the Roxbury area.Brett, Bill Globe Photo

As the Bay State Banner’s arts editor for 40 years, Kay Bourne spent more nights and weekends than can be counted reviewing and interviewing actors, artists, musicians, and writers — giving many their first media recognition.

“Life has a quiet way of passing most of us by, of being gone before we could see what is humanly and spiritually beautiful about it,” she began a 1971 Banner review of a Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists exhibit, a passage that explained why she did what she did.

“Our artists remind us of life’s qualities, and this is why we need them and why we must especially treasure our quiet artists who will not turn riches to glitter just to catch our eye.”

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Mrs. Bourne, who trained her eyes for decades on the Black arts communities in Roxbury and Dorchester, shining a light on those whose work often went unrecognized in Boston’s other media, died Jan. 31 in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center of heart and respiratory ailments.

She was 82 and had lived the past few years in Newton, after spending most of her life in a Brookline Victorian that became a de facto museum for creations by Boston’s Black artists.

“She was a national treasure and icon,” said Gloretta Baynes, an artist who is chairwoman and director of the African American Master Artist in Residence Program at Northeastern University. “She single-handedly supported the Black arts community. And when I say single-handedly, I mean that. Without her support, many artists would not have been recognized for their contributions.”

Barry Gaither, director and curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Roxbury, said that “Kay was an extraordinary supporter of African-American artists across all of the disciplines.”

He added that “there is hardly anyone who has been a performer or a producer of art in Boston’s Black community, earlier than the last decade or so, who did not feel that Kay was a supporter. And I think that mattered.”

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Lisa Simmons, director of the Roxbury Film Festival, wrote in a tribute that Mrs. Bourne “was a true champion of so many of us in the Black creative community.”

A journalist for whom tireless could be an insufficient adjective, Mrs. Bourne fit editing and reviewing into a full life outside of her writing.

She and her husband, William N. Bourne, raised their daughter and son in Brookline, where Mr. Bourne taught at the private Park School. Often the couple worked together in the dining room.

“They each had their papers, and they’d be typing away,” said their son Alex of Hallowell, Maine.

Mrs. Bourne also created a school at the Deer Island House of Correction, where she taught general equivalency diploma courses, and worked full-time for many years at the state Department of Transitional Assistance, from which she retired not long before her job at the Banner ended in 2005.

“The top line was humanity; it was people and what they did and how interesting they were and ‘How can I help?’ And she helped a lot of people,” said her longtime friend Barbara Burke, a former associate commissioner for employment and training with the state Department of Public Welfare, the precursor to the Department of Transitional Assistance.

“It was always a joy for her. It wasn’t work,” Burke said. “When I think of Kay, I think of Spike Lee — do the right thing. Kay always did the right thing.”

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Mrs. Bourne “was very committed to helping people find their path and live up to their greatness, even when things were tough,” said her daughter, Katie of Melrose. “For me, as a girl growing up in the early ’70s, having her as a role model was incredibly powerful.”

Katherine Elizabeth Day was born in Lynn on Sept. 11, 1938, and grew up in Marblehead, the only child of Schuyler V. Day, who ran a novelties business, and Elsie Mayo Day, who had been a schoolteacher.

After graduating from Marblehead High School, she went to Keene State College, from which she received a bachelor’s degree in education.

While there, she met her future husband, William Bourne. He was a Yale University graduate in a master’s program.

Having heard that a Yalie was on campus, “when she met him he was smoking a pipe and she asked him, ‘Is that the Yale bowl?’ That’s my mom. She was very clever and very funny,” Katie said.

“She was witty,” said Candelaria Silva-Collins, manager for the Fellowes Athenaeum Trust Fund of the Boston Public Library. “She loved smart people; she loved to talk about the latest books she had read or a play she had seen. She was erudite. I really appreciated that.”

Mrs. Bourne also received a master’s from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and had planned for a career in education.

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Alex said that as the family story goes, “she went to the Bay State Banner and said they should have a section on the arts. This was in the mid-’60s and the owner said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ And that’s how she started.”

Along with writing and editing for the Banner, she contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, to EDGE Media, a network of LGBTQ news and entertainment publications, and later started her own online arts report.

The organization Discover Roxbury honored Mrs. Bourne for her journalism, and she received a Champion of Artists award in 2019 from the Massachusetts Artists Leaders Coalition. The Roxbury Film Festival named the Emerging Filmmaker Award in her honor.

“She was just a giant,” said Simmons, the film festival’s director, of Mrs. Bourne, whose institutional memory drew connections between artists and eras. “She was always reminding us that there was a history behind the work that we were presenting in the Black community.”

Some of that history was in Mrs. Bourne’s Brookline home, where she kept every article she had written, the programs of all arts events she attended, shelves of books by Black writers, paintings by Black artists.

“It was like the Library of Congress. It had anything you needed to find out about Black writers, performers, theater,” Simmons said in an interview. “Her knowledge of Boston’s Black arts scene was like nobody else.”

Simmons added that Mrs. Bourne “loved the culture that was coming out of the Black community. She was one of ours.”

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Mrs. Bourne, whose husband died in 2005, leaves two grandchildren, in addition to her daughter and son.

A service will be announced once the pandemic’s limitation on the size of gatherings is lifted.

Mrs. Bourne donated more than 1,000 volumes of Black literature to the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, her daughter said, and her archive of the Black arts community will be housed at Emerson College.

“She cared about that archive very deeply,” said Brian Coleman, an author who helped Mrs. Bourne prepare a trove of papers that reflected a dedication that reached beyond journalism’s typical one-off reviews and interviews.

“She kept in touch with people and showed up after the article was written — for years and years — to say, ‘How are you doing? I’ve been following your career.’ That meant so much to people,” he said.

Mrs. Bourne’s work, he added, “was definitely way more than a job to her. It was a calling, and she did it with enthusiasm and compassion and love.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.