In a 1995 joint profile in The New York Times, the actors and activists Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis were described as being “without peer in an industry not known for nurturing black people, older people or long marriages.”
Davis died in 2005, Dee nine years later. Now the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has acquired the couple’s joint archive: more than 145 bankers boxes of photographs, letters, scripts and other material that document 60-plus years together on stage, screen and the front lines of social activism.
The archive traces their rise from the African-American theater movement of the 1940s to Broadway (they were both in the original 1959 production of “A Raisin in the Sun”) and then to Hollywood, where they appeared together or separately in more than 50 movies, including Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” and “Jungle Fever.”
It also chronicles their role as stalwarts of the civil rights movement who navigated the sometimes contentious lines dividing different parts of the broader black freedom struggle. The couple were M.C.'s at the 1963 March on Washington, and Davis delivered a searing eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral two years later.
Kevin Young, the director of the Schomburg, said the archive traces a period of cultural history that saw the expansion of possibilities for African-American actors, driven in no small part by Dee and Davis themselves.
“It’s quite a journey,” he said. “It’s one we take for granted, but it tells us a lot about the history of black expression, and popular entertainment in general.”
Here is a sampling of items from the archive.
Starting Out In Harlem
Dee, who grew up in Harlem, got her professional start in 1940 at the American Negro Theater, an ensemble that performed in the building that houses the Schomburg Center. (Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were also members.) Davis, who arrived in New York in 1939, first performed with the Rose McClendon Players, a company named for the pioneering African-American actress that worked out of the Harlem Library on 124th Street, 10 blocks downtown.
But they only met when they were cast opposite each other in “Jeb,” a play by Robert Ardrey that opened on Broadway in 1946. Davis played an African-American World War II veteran who returns home to Louisiana only to have his ambitions thwarted by racism. Dee was his long-suffering sweetheart.
The play — the third on Broadway that season, The Times noted in its review, dealing with “racial intolerance” — closed after only nine performances. But later that year, Dee and Davis joined “Anna Lucasta,” the first play on Broadway with an all-black cast that was not focused on racial themes. (The 1949 Hollywood film version featured an all-white cast.)
‘Dear Beetle Bug’
Dee and Davis were married in December 1948, during their one day off from the plays they were appearing in. The archive includes more than 50 years of correspondence, much of it written when they were apart for work.
“Precious Lover and Beloved,” Dee wrote in 1950. “Relaxation and contentment came to me after our talk last night. I was almost happy, and shortly after I went into the soundest sleep since our separation.”
Some of Davis’s letters begin on a more irreverent note. “Hello sweetmeat,” one begins. “I got your letter this morning and wet my little panties with joy — so sweet of you to write little stinker.” Another opens with “Dear Beetle Bug.”
Dee and Davis appeared in 11 plays together, including the landmark original 1959 production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” the first play by an African-American woman to run on Broadway. (Dee originated the role of Ruth Younger; Davis took over as her husband, Walter Younger, after Sidney Poitier left.)
The archive includes Dee’s working script, showing many handwritten changes and notes. There are also clippings and other material relating to “integration showcases” organized that year by Actors Equity. These showcases, staged for agents and producers, featured scenes from classic plays with black and white actors — an early effort to promote what came to be called nontraditional casting.
On the Front Lines
For Dee in particular, activism started early. As a teenager in New York City, she worked with a church group called the Interracial Youth Fellowship, sometimes designing programs like this one commemorating Negro History Week, the forerunner of Black History Month.
The archive includes material relating to their defense of the Rosenbergs and of Paul Robeson, whose passport was revoked after he traveled to the Soviet Union. There are also letters and fliers about events they helped organize for the cultural wing of Local 1199, New York City’s hospital workers’ union.
Brother Malcolm X
After the success of “A Raisin in the Sun,” their next appearance on Broadway came in 1961 with Davis’s own play, “Purlie Victorious.” A satire of white racism set in plantation country of the Old South, the play attracted one man not usually spotted at the theater: Malcolm X.
“Black folks laughing at white folks was revolutionary — the highest kind of struggle he could imagine,” Davis later wrote, recalling Malcolm X’s reaction to the play (which became the basis for the 1970 musical “Purlie”).
The archive includes 18 letters and postcards Malcolm X later sent to Davis and Dee, most sent during his trips to the Middle East and Africa in 1964, after he had broken with the Nation of Islam.
There are terse postcards from Mecca and various African capitals, where he met with heads of state in order to gain support for a resolution condemning the mistreatment of African-Americans. Some of the longer missives mix politics with more tender concerns.
“I’m beginning to miss my own family very much,” he wrote in a letter from Ethiopia, “but it is all part of the struggle.”
There are also letters Davis got in response to the famous eulogy he delivered at Malcolm X’s funeral, hailing him as “our own shining black prince.” He later recreated the eulogy for a voice-over used at the end of Spike Lee’s 1992 film “Malcolm X.”
Doing the Right Thing
Dee and Davis made their movie debuts together, in the 1950 Sidney Poitier racial melodrama “No Way Out.” Both were uncredited.
By the 1970s, they were part of the emerging black independent film movement. The archive features photographs, scripts and other materials relating to six movies Davis wrote or directed, including “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (based on a novel by Chester Himes) and “Countdown at Kusini” (1976), a thriller set in a mythical African country moving toward independence, which also starred Dee.
That film, shot in Nigeria, was funded by Delta Sigma Theta, an African-American women’s service organization, as part of an effort to produce movies about black life that countered the blaxploitation films flooding the market. It is credited as the first American feature shot entirely in Africa by black professionals.
The movie had only a brief run, and all but disappeared. (The archive includes a rare copy.) But starting a decade and a half later, Dee and Davis became touchstones for and frequent collaborators with another independent filmmaker.
In 1988, Spike Lee sent the couple the script for “Do the Right Thing,” along with a handwritten letter offering them the roles of Da Mayor and Mother Sister. “I’m STILL STRONG and more determined than ever,” he wrote, promising that the movie would be “better than ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ better than ‘School Daze.’”
Vincent Canby, writing in The Times, agreed, and described the couple as offering a kind of intergenerational benediction. “Miss Dee and Mr. Davis are not only figures within the film,” he wrote, “but, as themselves, they also seem to preside over it, as if ushering in a new era of black filmmaking.”
Jennifer Schuessler is a culture reporter covering intellectual life and the world of ideas. She is based in New York. @jennyschuessler
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