"You can't see it," poet Nikki Giovanni told the auience at the Eisenhower Theater last night, "but stand in the hallway of one of our black colleges and see if you don't feel the warmth."

That same warmth was evident in the program she narrated before nearly 100 college presidents at the Kennedy Center's tribute to black higher education.

The tribute began with Giovannni's moving interpretation of an original script written for the occasion by Margaret Walker Alexander. Relying occasionally on the works of black poetslike Langston Hughes, Alexander sketched, in words and imagery, the origins, growth and spirit of black educational institutions. Her poetry, enhanced by a slide presentation that traced the same path visually, punctuated the rest of the evening's musical performances.

The program was conceived by Dr. Archie L. Buffkins as a salute to "historically black colleges," institutions described later in the evening by Giovanni as "those precious fruit treesthat bloomed among the thorns of segregation." All of the performers last night donated their services.

Violinist Sanford D. Allen offeredhis "musical variation of 'Here and Now'" with pieces by Kreisler, Perkinson and Cordero; the Andy Goodrich Jazz Quintet worked backwards from thebossa nova feel of "Meditation" to Charlie Parker's "Billie's Bounce." And soprano soloist Matttiwilda Dobb' rech was considerbly longer -- from Pucini to Gershwin.

Later, a few black ties were let out a notch when Carolyn Reid-Wallace cried out Walker's words in her declamatory voice, even eliciting a brief call-and-response pattern with the audience at one point. Finally, the Howard University Chorale celebrated black music with a joyous blending of voices on an inspired collection of hymns, spirituals, work songs and blues.

Prior to the concert, Dr. P.R. Robinson, president of St. Augistine's College in Raleigh, N.C., explained that there were 108 colleges in the country included in the tribute.

"We call them historically black," hesaid, "because they were founded, primarily in the South, by blacks to serve blacks when other alternatives weren't available.I'd say more than 75 percent of those colleges are represented here tonight by their presidents."

As it happens, not one of those officials had to ask for leave of absence to attend the black-tie affair. They werealready on one -- attending the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education conference being held at the Hilton this weekend.