Meet the innovator behind the Urbana Black Heritage Festival


Editor’s note: This is one article in a series celebrating the history and achievements of Black Americans in Champaign County.

By Paule Simone Brown

Contributing writer

“A man without knowledge of himself and his heritage is like a tree without roots.” — Dick Gregory

A major focus of Black History Month is celebrating and showcasing the contributions that Blacks have made to our communities. Honoring Black leaders is the spirit of this event. In the last story in a series for this month, the series highlights a leader who sets high standards for himself, is gifted, innovative and esteemed in the community: Kalen Howell Sr.

Howell has been building and leading technology teams for over 20 years. Early in his career he founded and ran an IT Consulting Firm, and BK Digital IT Solutions and Services. In 16 years, his company grew to as many as 12 technicians and engineers. The firm served small to mid-sized businesses and government institutions throughout southwest Ohio, including the City of Urbana.

During this time, he earned his Bachelor of Science in Information Technology, a Master of Science in Computer Science and he went back to school in 2019 and earned his MBA from the University of Dayton. Howell transitioned from a business owner to a corporate technology leader. His management career includes Manager of Quality Engineering in the legal software field, Manager of Ancillary Systems in the health care field, and Assistant Vice President of IT Business and Quality Group in the finance field. He is currently serving as a Chief Information Officer at ChemStation International Inc.

He said, “I designed my career path strategically. I figured out what I needed to learn, how to learn it and then I went after tech-based positions in my career. I thought it was the technology that made me feel fulfilled, but it was being able to use every one of my strengths and skills daily that gave me fulfillment. This was a game changer in my life. Now I knew I could achieve whatever I set my mind to.”

Today, Howell continues to be an innovator, and his most recent project has been the creation of the Urbana Black Heritage Festival that started last summer.

He says, “As a child growing up in a rural Ohio town with a small black population, I have some scars and heartaches that I have carried with me for a very long time. Through opening up and sharing with others, my healing progressed, and the festival was conceived. The festival would be a community event bringing diverse groups together to celebrate not only Black Heritage, but all heritage, and to bring healing for the community as a whole.”

In addition, he is deeply rooted in Urbana and wishes to recognize the contributions of his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents to the city. His father, Charles (Tim) Howell Jr. was born and raised in Urbana. He helped establish the Urbana Jayhawks football program, serving the youth of the city, and surely helped cement Urbana as one of the best football cities in the region for years into the future. He was also instrumental in the Urbana Local Youth Basketball program. Tim helped establish and diligently served in the Men’s Progressive Club, teaching, tutoring and mentoring youth, as well as getting involved in community matters.

His mother, Rosalie Releford, is from Columbus Ohio. She went to Urbana University, earned a master’s degree, and spent her teaching career at West Liberty-Salem Local School District. Howell shared, “I frequently meet people, even today, people who tell me how impactful my mom was as their teacher growing up. Most will even mention that she was the only Black person they knew. And if you know my mom, you know those encounters were empowering, inspirational and life transforming.”

His wife, Brenda Howell, earned her bachelor’s degree from Capital University and master’s degree from Ohio University and is a licensed social worker. Together they have two children, Tyeal and Kalen Jr., and two granddaughters. Kalen also has another daughter, Klarrisa.

Barbara Howell, his grandmother, was the first Director of the Head Start program for the Tri-County Community Action Committee that oversaw the program for Champaign, Logan and Shelby counties. Dedicated to serving the community, she supported programs that helped those in need. As a result of Barbara Howell’s 30-year service with Head Start and her long service to supporting children, Market Street Park in Urbana was renamed to Barbara Howell Park in 1998.

The Second Annual Urbana Black Heritage Festival will be held at the Barbara Howell Park on Saturday, June 17 this year. Some of the activities already planned for this year are below.

Heritage Gallery and Pop-Up Museum

St. Paul A.M.E. Church 316 East Market Street

10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Visit the assembly room of historic St. Paul A.M.E, Church at 316 East Market Street. Mingle and reminisce with friends and neighbors at the Heritage Gallery and Pop-Up Museum. Festival attendees are invited to bring family heirlooms, photos, documents, mementos, and other items of interest related to Urbana and Champaign County African American Heritage to display for the day. The church will be open for tour as well. Onsite scanning will be available at no charge for those wishing to digitize photos and documents to be added to a local African American Heritage database under development. Doors open at 8 a.m. for set-up.

Walking Tours

Depart from St. Paul AME Church, 316 East Market Street

10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Tours will commence on the hour at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., noon, 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Each tour will last approximately 45 minutes.

Join local historian John Bry for a stroll through Urbana’s original African American neighborhood that contains over 80 structures related to the rich heritage of the community that spans over 200 years.

From former slaves to nationally renowned scholars, the “Ginny” District is home to stories of tragedy and triumph in what was the city’s most diverse neighborhood occupied by black, white, rich, poor, professional, working class, Christian and Jewish residents.

Oak Dale Cemetery Memory Circle and Peter Byrd Marker Unveiling

Departs from Urbana City Parking Lot on East Market and South Locust Streets promptly at 7:45 p.m.

Remember and recall all of those who came before us. Close out the day by traveling by police escort down East Water Street to historic Oak Dale Cemetery to the African American section.

Upon arrival at the cemetery, participants may place a luminary of their own design or flowers at the graves of friends, family or complete strangers. A “memory circle” will then form with a brief candlelight prayer and moment of silence as the sun begins to set on the day. In addition, a monument will be unveiled to mark the grave of Peter Byrd who was a local African American entrepreneur, and one of the few black Underground Railroad operators in the vicinity prior to the end of slavery and the Civil War.

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