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Ossie Davis

Writer, director, actor, and producer Ossie Davis has established a phenomenal career, remaining throughout, a strong voice for artists' rights, human dignity, and social justice.

Ossie Davis was born on December 18, 1917, in Cogdell, Georgia, to loving parents and a supportive extended family. Graduating in the top five percent of his class with an already burgeoning interest in theater, Davis had to earn enough money before venturing on to college. A year after graduation, with his savings in tow, Davis hitchhiked from Georgia to Washington, D.C., to live with his aunts. There, he received the National Youth Administration scholarship and enrolled at Howard University in the fall of 1935.

At Howard University, Davis would find a nurturing environment to cultivate both his ideas and his talents. Impatient to try his luck on the actual stage, Davis left Howard University for New York City. It was in Harlem in 1939 that he became involved with the Rose McClendon Players.

Davis made his Broadway debut in 1946 in Jeb, where he met his wife and fellow actress, Ruby Dee. Davis went on to perform in many Broadway productions, including Anna Lucasta, The Wisteria Trees, Green Pastures, Jamaica, Ballad for Bimshire, A Raisin in the Sun, The Zulu and the Zayda, and the stage version of I'm Not Rappaport. In 1961, he wrote and starred in the critically acclaimed Purlie Victorious. Davis was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1994.

Davis has written and directed numerous films, including Cotton Comes to Harlem and Countdown at Kusini (co-produced with his wife), the first American feature film shot entirely in Africa by Black professionals. He most recently appeared in the films Dr. Dolittle, Get on the Bus, and I'm Not Rappaport.

Davis was a leading activist in the civil rights era of the 1960s. He joined Martin Luther King, Jr., in the crusade for jobs and freedom and to help raise money for the Freedom Riders. He eulogized both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X at their funerals. He remains an activist today.

Davis has received innumerable honors and citations, including the Hall of Fame Award for Outstanding Artistic Achievement in 1989; the U.S. National Medal for the Arts in 1995; the New York Urban League Frederick Douglas Award; NAACP Image Award; and the Screen Actor's Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. He has enjoyed a long and luminous career in entertainment along with his wife and fellow performer, stage and screen collaborator, and political activist, Ruby Dee. They have recently published a joint autobiography, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.

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New York

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Film director, screenwriter, stage actor, and film actor Ossie Davis (1917 - 2005 ) established a phenomenal career, remaining throughout, a strong voice for artists' rights, human dignity, and social justice. Davis appeared in countless theatrical performances and feature length films and was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1994. Davis has written and directed numerous films, including 'Cotton Comes to Harlem' and 'Countdown at Kusini.' Davis was a passionate activist throughout his life, and had the honor to eulogized both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X at their funerals.

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<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Ossie Davis interview</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Ossie Davis's favorites</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Ossie Davis describes his childhood personality</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Ossie Davis gives recollections about his father's personality and his mother's sewing skills</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Ossie Davis describes the neighborhood of his youth</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Ossie Davis talks about his religious and formal educations</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Ossie Davis recalls a racist incident from his childhood</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Ossie Davis recalls his high school experiences</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Ossie Davis details his father's career aspirations</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Ossie Davis talks about his decision ot attend Howard University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Ossie Davis discusses his mentor Alain LeRoy Locke and his decision to become an actor</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Ossie Davis recalls his first forays into political activism</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Ossie Davis talks about his depression and the events following World War II</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Ossie Davis talks about his courtship and marriage of Ruby Dee</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Ossie Davis talks about the early years of his marriage and surviving McCarthyism</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Ossie Davis discusses his developing worldview in relation to his writing</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Ossie Davis gives his views on youth, creativity and his future</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Ossie Davis is uncomfortable with the idea of 'legacy' and urges people to focus on the future</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Ossie Davis ponders his hopes for the black community</a>







Ossie Davis recalls a racist incident from his childhood
Ossie Davis discusses his mentor Alain LeRoy Locke and his decision to become an actor
Now, Waycross [Georgia] had the advantage of this black enclave--segregated, but black--and we saw ourselves in positions of authority--black preachers, black teachers, black people in the barbershop, black doctor, black dentist--but we were surrounded by a hostile world, part of which was the Ku Klux Klan, and there was always the threat that something dire might happen or something--some animosity might break loose and endanger us in the community. And a large part of my own culture--and this I wasn't aware of at the time--a large part of my own culture was not tainted but sort of geared to protect me from the areas where I might inadvertently do something or say something that could get me hurt--how to behave in the presence of white people, and for the black boys particularly, how to relate to the white female--and we were sort of taught this and it was sort of a part of who we were and what we had to absorb. I remember when I was about five or six, coming home from school. I had maybe a couple of books with me. We didn't have book bags in those days, and two policemen in a car drove up, stopped. "Come here, boy." I turned and went to them. "Get in." I got in the car and they drove me down to the police station, and I got out of the car and went in with them. They were not threatening, and I wasn't frightened by them, and when we got inside, you know, they were about their business, and there were others, and they acted as if I was just a kid hanging around, and finally they told jokes and I laughed at them, and then one of them took syrup and poured it on my head, and another gave me some peanut brittle and put me on the streets and told me, "Go home now. Don't get into any devilment," and I did. And although I was five or six, I didn't tell my mama [Laura Cooper Davis] or my daddy [Kince Charles Davis]. I knew that something had been done to me that defined me in a way, but I knew not to tell them because if Daddy were angered or if Mama were threatened, what would I do? So I swallowed that, but I always knew that that really was meant to tell me that I was a nigger and that I had a place and that I should keep in that place. As I think back on it, I think it was designed specifically to get my consent to the system of segregation. In other words, they had to ascertain whether I was going to be a good boy or a bad nigger then, and they ascertained it by my response and me being sensitive and likable and happy. I'm sure I laughed when they laughed, and I didn't feel threatened by the whole thing at all, but they had somehow 'niggerized' me, and it lasted for many a year, and I suppose some of the effects of that were still beyond me.$I studied, as I said before, with Dr. Alain LeRoy Locke who was head of the Department of Philosophy [at Howard University, Washington, D.C.]. Locke was the first black Rhodes Scholar ever (with emphasis), and he had discovered some people like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and whatnot, and was interested in the students and what their ambitions were and where they were going. I passed one of his examinations, and evidently he was impressed by what he saw on the paper and invited me to his office, sat me down, said, "Young man, what are you going to do with yourself?" I told him I wanted to be a writer. He said, "Writer? Write what?" "I want to write plays." He was slightly taken aback. He said, "Where are you from?" He'd already heard the big-foot country accent in my voice. I said, "I'm from Waycross, Georgia." "I don't mean Waycr--yeah, Waycross, but where?" I said, "That's the name of the town." He said, "You want to write, you say?" "Yes." "Write plays for the theater?" I said, "Oh, yes." "Have you ever been in the theater?" "Oh, yeah. Every Saturday night in Waycross we used to go to see the cowboy pictures." "No, no, no, no. Live people up on the stage?" And I said, "Well, I did go to the Howard Theater [Washington, D.C.], and I saw Billie Holiday and Ethel Waters." He said, "No, that's still not it. Actors in a play up on stage. You never saw?" I said, "No, sir." "You're gonna write plays and you never even saw one play?" I said, "Yes, sir." He said, "Well, I tell you what you do. When you finish here, you go to New York where the theater is. Go to Harlem [New York], and there's a little theater group there called the Rose McClendon Players. You tell them I sent you. Ask them to let you join. If they let you join, then join the company, and once you join, you do everything that's possible for you to do--act, sing, dance, build scenery, paint sets, hustle lemonade, push programs--whatever." And this to me was such wisdom. I mean, this was what I had really come to college to find out so once he told me that, I had what I came so I didn't bother to stay to graduate. I decided to go to New York and find this little place. There was--our plan was--my friend and I who decided to go to New York--was to go on April 16th, 1939. It turned out that that was the Sunday Marian Anderson was going to sing at the [Abraham] Lincoln Memorial so we delayed our, delayed our departure for a full week so we could hear Marian Anderson, and standing there listening to that voice and becoming aware of what that voice was doing, reaching inside of me and making me--empowering me, making me bigger and stronger than what I, what I was. It was, it was almost like a religious conversion listening to Marian Anderson. But anyway that next Sunday, my friend and I caught the train from Penn [Pennsylvania] Station in Washington [D.C.] and went on up to Harlem. Now Medas, who as I said was West Indian, had worked out a ploy for my friend and me to survive for awhile. The ploy was this. I was to pretend that I was a West Indian and go into the West Indian community with this letter from Eldon, and if I were accepted, they would find me a job and do all those things so I took Eldon's letter, went to Harlem, found the people to whom he had written the letter, went to them. They found me a place to stay and ultimately found me a job in the garment center, and I got to Harlem Sunday, April 23rd, I think it was, and Monday the 24th, I found the Rose McClendon Players. It was situated at the 124th Street [public] library in the basement. I walked in the door, entered the theater, and I suppose that was the end of my search. I had found the place that was gonna be my home, my career, and everything--Rose McClendon Players.