Davis, Raiford Chatman ("Ossie")

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DAVIS, Raiford Chatman ("Ossie")

(b. 18 December 1917 in Cogdell, Georgia), actor of stage, screen, and television; director, playwright, producer, novelist, and prominent figure in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Davis was the eldest of five children of Kince Charles Davis, a railroad construction engineer, and Laura Cooper Davis, a homemaker. He grew up in Waycross, Georgia. While attending Central High School in Waycross, he developed a love for the theater and wrote and produced his first play. After graduating from Central High in 1935 and receiving a National Youth Administration scholarship for college, Davis hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., to live with his aunts while attending Howard University. In 1938, influenced by Alain Locke, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, Davis left Howard after his junior year to go to New York City, where he joined the Rose McClendon Players, a small theater group in Harlem. He was inducted into the U.S. Army in 1942 and spent most of his military service in Liberia, West Africa, as a surgical technician. He was then transferred to Special Services, where he produced several shows, including his own first play, Goldbrickers of 1944. Upon his discharge in 1945, he returned to Valdosta, Georgia, and in early 1946 again headed to New York City to pursue his acting career. He made his stage debut that year in the title role in Jeb and followed that success with significant roles on Broadway and in film and television throughout the 1950s. Davis married actress Ruby Dee (Ruby Ann Wallace), his Jeb costar, on 9 December 1948. They had two daughters and a son.

In the 1960s Davis achieved even broader success in the performing arts. In 1959 he replaced Sidney Poitier in the successful play A Raisin in the Sun. The following year he established himself as a playwright with Purlie Victorious, a satire on southern racism that combined folk-comedy with satire in portraying black and white southern stereotypes. Davis also wrote and starred in Gone Are the Days, the film version of the play. In 1970 the movie was transformed into the Broadway musical Purlie. The 1960s were also productive in film and television for Davis; he appeared in several other films during this decade, including The Cardinal (1963), The Hill (1965), The Scalphunters (1968), and Slaves (1969). He appeared in several television series, and in 1969 was nominated for an Emmy Award for his performance in the Hallmark Hall of Fame teleplay, Teacher, Teacher.

As a child in the Deep South, Davis encountered rampant racism but learned to keep quiet to avoid retaliation. Writing was his way of expressing the treatment he saw his father and others receive at the hands of white bigots. While a student at Howard University, and later as a young playwright and actor in New York City, Davis became vocal against civil rights abuses.

The civil rights era of the 1960s was one of the most important periods in the domestic history of the United States; the civil rights movement challenged the national conscience, and every facet of African-American life changed, including black performing arts. As Davis stated, "the civil rights movement made black people, women, and minorities free." Davis was a prominent figure in the movement and in political activities dating back to the 1950s, when he took a strong political stance on certain issues during the McCarthy era, a period when government officials led by Senator Joseph McCarthy sought to root out Communism in the United States. He organized a fund-raiser for the activist and writer Angela Davis, arranged a meeting between the activist Malcolm X and the main black leadership of the day, and spoke out at forums organized by the actor and singer Paul Robeson. Always a strong advocate of racial equality, Davis joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his crusade for jobs and freedom by participating in King's Memorial March in Memphis, Tennessee. He helped raise money for the Freedom Riders arrested in the South and for the legal defense of the activist poet and playwright Le Roi Jones. Considering himself to be a cultural arm of the civil rights revolution, Davis's life and, to a larger extent, his work, were greatly influenced by the movement.

Davis has served on the advisory board of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and supported the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

In 1962 Davis testified at a congressional inquiry into racial discrimination in show business that "despite the success of a few blacks, discrimination in hiring is widespread in the theater" and proposed that black people use the boycott as a weapon in combating this discrimination. A year later he wrote a skit for the 1963 March on Washington and, with wife Ruby Dee, served as master of ceremonies for the historic occasion. In 1965 he delivered the eulogy at the funeral of his friend Malcolm X. He also served as one of the sixty sponsors for Robeson's sixty-fifth birthday salute, an event that many prominent black figures avoided because they were afraid that an association with Robeson would hurt their careers. In 1965 Davis's strong involvement in social and political issues earned him the first Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party Citation.

A distinguished actor, Davis has always been a forceful voice for human dignity and social justice, using his celebrity status while serving on the frontlines of the fight for social equality. His dedication to the cause of civil rights earned him a place in the NAACP Image Hall of Fame. Davis and Dee were the 1970 recipients of the Frederick Douglass Award from the Urban League for their civil rights activities.

The grand old man of black theater, who never intended to be an actor, but a writer, has been called one of the best African-American actors and directors of his era. From the period of the Great Depression, through the civil rights movement, to the present, Davis has been a strong, forceful advocate for human dignity, political freedom, and social justice, by telling the story of African-American people through song, through dance, through his writings, and through his storytelling.

An excellent biographical source is Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together (1998), a joint autobiography that covers their life and describes their involvement in the civil rights movement. Articles with informationabout Davis and his career are Lynn Norment, "Three Great Love Stories," Ebony 43 (Feb. 1988); W. Calvin Anderson, "One Minute at a Time: Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Are Still Making Dreams Come True," American Vision 7 (Apr./May 1992): 20–24; and Dwight E. Greer, "Interview with Ossie Davis," High Plains Literary Review 9 (spring 1994): 74–80.

Joyce K. Thornton

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