On the walls surrounding the tiny stage were posters of heroes of the past: Harriet Tubman, W. E. B. Dubois John Coltrane and others. Below, on the stage, small children danced to the beat of conga drums.

Amid the handclaps and, stamping feet of their parents, the little children sang of Kwanza, an Afro-American celebration commemorating a common heritage.

This is a celebration born during the civil rights struggle, and one that people in that movement, in particular, say they are determined to preserve.

"We are doing this for our children," said Atiba Coppock, 31, a former civil rights activist whose two children were among some 40 yougsters at the Kwanza celebration last night at the Ujamaa School, Eighth and Q Streets NW.

"Everyone in this country has a heritage except African people. We have to explain to our children why they are Afro-American and what they are up against," Coppock said. "What we are trying to do is to recreate or restructure ourselves as a family," said Baba Elzulu, director of the Ujamaa School.

"We had that sense of family, that sense of responsibility when we first came from Africa, but lost it during slavery. We can rebuild a sense of family pride, pride in our people. We can do it again.

"This celebration tonight is for the family," he said. "But the emphasis is on our children-we definitely want to serve our children because they are the leaders of the future.

"We are talking about self-respect, and the respect of others, of sharing, of loving," Elzulu said.

"What time is it," Elzulu shouted to the audience. All joined in, shouting, "It's Kwanza time."

Many of the participants were dressed in traditional African clothes - dashikis and dashiki suits and colorful print wrap-around skirts and tops.

At the beginning of the ceremony, drummer Baba Nogma led other drummers in a prelude of rhythmic beats that encouraged the audience to sway and tap their feet. Ngoma chanted in Swahili, calling on ancestors to join and bless the gathering.

Since Kwanza was founded, it has been celebrated by a number of young adults committed to the concept of black pride. Mandy of these young adults were active in the civil rights struggles of the early-and mid- 1960s.

Kwanza, a Swahili word meaning first, is a celebration created in 1966 by M. Ron Karenga, a black acitvist, to give blacks in America a heritage celebration of their own.

Each of the seven days of Kwanza represents a particular principle: Umoja means unity, Kujichagulia means self-determination, Ujima means collective work and responsibility, Ujamaa is cooperative economics, Kuumba is creativty, Nia means purpose and Imani, faith.

"Kwanza has grown like topsy," said Larry Neal, executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts. "It came at a time when (black) people needed images. Christmas is a mythiecal European construct-all those images are European.

"Kwanza is something we can hold up as our own despite the fact that we have been torn apart from our ancestral heritage," said Florence Tate, press secretary to mayor-elect Marion Barry. She noted that Barry is sending out Kwanza cards this year instead of Christmas cards.