Ossie Davis

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Ossie Davis
Ossie Davis.jpg
Davis in 2000
Raiford Chatman Davis

(1917-12-18)December 18, 1917
Cogdell, Clinch County, Georgia, U.S.
DiedFebruary 4, 2005(2005-02-04) (aged 87)
Miami, Florida, U.S.
OccupationActor, director, poet, playwright, author, activist
Years active1939–2005
Ruby Dee (m. 1948)
Children3, including Guy Davis
Military career
AllegianceFlag of the United States.svg  United States
Service/branch United States Army
UnitMedical Corps
Battles/wars World War II

Ossie Davis (born Raiford Chatman Davis; December 18, 1917 – February 4, 2005) was an American film, television and Broadway actor, director, poet, playwright, author, and civil rights activist. [1] [2] [3]

Broadway theatre class of professional theater presented in New York City, New York, USA

Broadway theatre, also known simply as Broadway, refers to the theatrical performances presented in the 41 professional theatres, each with 500 or more seats located in the Theater District and Lincoln Center along Broadway, in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. Along with London's West End theatre, Broadway theatre is widely considered to represent the highest level of commercial theatre in the English-speaking world.

Civil and political rights are a class of rights that protect individuals' freedom from infringement by governments, social organizations, and private individuals. They ensure one's entitlement to participate in the civil and political life of the society and state without discrimination or repression.


He was married to Ruby Dee, with whom he frequently performed, until his death in 2005. [4]

Ruby Dee American actress

Ruby Dee was an American actress, poet, playwright, screenwriter, journalist, and civil rights activist. She is perhaps best known for originating the role of "Ruth Younger" in the stage and film versions of A Raisin in the Sun (1961). Her other notable film roles include The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) and Do the Right Thing (1989).

He and his wife were named to the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame; were awarded the National Medal of Arts [5] and were recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors. He was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1994.

The NAACP Image Award is an annual awards ceremony presented by the U.S.-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to honor outstanding performances in film, television, music, and literature. Similar to other awards, like the Oscars and the Grammys, the over 40 categories of the Image Awards are voted on by the award organization's members. Honorary awards have also been included, such as the President's Award, the Chairman's Award, the Entertainer of the Year, and the Hall of Fame Award.

Kennedy Center Honors annual honor

The Kennedy Center Honors is an annual honor given to those in the performing arts for their lifetime of contributions to American culture. The honors have been presented annually since 1978, culminating each December in a star-studded gala celebrating the honorees in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

The American Theater Hall of Fame in New York City was founded in 1972. Earl Blackwell was the first head of the organization's Executive Committee. In an announcement in 1972, he said that the new Theater Hall of Fame would be located in the Uris Theatre. James M. Nederlander and Gerard Oestreicher, who leased the theater, donated the space for the Hall of Fame; Arnold Weissberger was another founder. Blackwell noted that the names of the first honorees would "be embossed in bronze-gold lettering on the theater's entrance walls flanking its grand staircase and escalator." The first group of inductees was announced in October 1972.

Early years

Raiford Chatman Davis was born in Cogdell, Clinch County, Georgia, a son of Kince Charles Davis, a railway construction engineer, and his wife Laura (née Cooper; July 9, 1898 – June 6, 2004). [6] [7] He inadvertently became known as "Ossie" when his birth certificate was being filed and his mother's pronunciation of his name as "R. C. Davis" was misheard by the courthouse clerk in Clinch County, Ga. [8] Davis experienced racism from an early age when the KKK threatened to shoot his father, whose job they felt was too advanced for a black man to have. His siblings included scientist William Conan Davis, social worker Essie Morgan Davis, pharmacist Kenneth Curtis Davis, and biology teacher James Davis. [9]

Clinch County, Georgia County in the United States

Clinch County is a county located in the U.S. state of Georgia. As of the 2010 census, the population was 6,798. The county seat is Homerville. The county was created on February 14, 1850, named in honor of Duncan Lamont Clinch.

Racism race or ethnic-based discrimination

Racism is the belief in the superiority of one race over another. It may also mean prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against other people because they are of a different race or ethnicity. Modern variants of racism are often based in social perceptions of biological differences between peoples. These views can take the form of social actions, practices or beliefs, or political systems in which different races are ranked as inherently superior or inferior to each other, based on presumed shared inheritable traits, abilities, or qualities.

Ku Klux Klan American white supremacy group

The Ku Klux Klan, commonly called the KKK or the Klan, is an American white supremacist hate group, whose primary target is African Americans. The Klan has existed in three distinct eras at different points in time during the history of the United States. Each has advocated extremist reactionary positions such as white nationalism, anti-immigration and—especially in later iterations—Nordicism and anti-Catholicism. Historically, the First Klan used terrorism – both physical assault and murder – against politically active blacks and their allies in the South in the late 1860s, until it was suppressed around 1872. All three movements have called for the "purification" of American society and all are considered right-wing extremist organizations. In each era, membership was secret and estimates of the total were highly exaggerated by both friends and enemies.

Following the wishes of his parents, he attended Howard University but dropped out in 1939 to fulfill his desire for an acting career in New York after a recommendation by Alain Locke; he later attended Columbia University School of General Studies. His acting career, which spanned eight decades, began in 1939 with the Rose McClendon Players in Harlem. During World War II, Davis served in the United States Army in the Medical Corps. He made his film debut in 1950 in the Sidney Poitier film No Way Out . He voiced Anansi the spider on the PBS children's television series Sesame Street in its animation segments.

Howard University university in Washington D.C.

Howard University is a private, federally chartered historically black university (HBCU) in Washington, D.C. It is categorized by the Carnegie Foundation as a research university with higher research activity and is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Columbia University School of General Studies liberal arts college at Columbia University

The School of General Studies, Columbia University (GS) is a liberal arts college and one of the undergraduate colleges of Columbia University, situated on the university's main campus in Morningside Heights, New York City. GS is known primarily for its traditional B.A. degree program for mature students. GS students make up approximately 30% of the Columbia undergraduate population.

Harlem Neighborhood of Manhattan in New York City

Harlem is a neighborhood in the northern section of the New York City borough of Manhattan. It is bounded roughly by Frederick Douglass Boulevard, St. Nicholas Avenue, and Morningside Park on the west; the Harlem River and 155th Street on the north; Fifth Avenue on the east; and Central Park North on the south. The greater Harlem area encompasses several other neighborhoods and extends west to the Hudson River, north to 155th Street, east to the East River, and south to 96th Street. Harlem is part of Manhattan Community District 10.


photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1951 Ossiedavis.jpg
photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1951

When Davis wanted to pursue a career in acting, he ran into the usual roadblocks that blacks suffered at that time as they generally could only portray stereotypical characters such as Stepin Fetchit. Instead, he tried to follow the example of Sidney Poitier and play more distinguished characters. When he found it necessary to play a Pullman porter or a butler, he played those characters realistically, not as a caricature.

Stepin Fetchit American actor

Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, better known by the stage name Stepin Fetchit, was an American vaudevillian, comedian and film actor of Jamaican and Bahamian descent, considered to be the first black actor to have a successful film career. His highest profile was during the 1930s when in films and on stage, his persona of Stepin Fetchit was billed as "the Laziest Man in the World".

Sidney Poitier American-born Bahamian actor, film director, author, and diplomat

Sir Sidney Poitier, is a Bahamian-American actor and film director.

Pullman Company

The Pullman Car Company, founded by George Pullman, manufactured railroad cars in the mid-to-late 19th century through the first half of the 20th century, during the boom of railroads in the United States. Through rapid late nineteenth century development of mass production, and takeover of rivals, the company developed a virtual monopoly on production and ownership of sleeper cars.

In addition to acting, Davis, along with Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks, was one of the notable black directors of his generation: he directed movies such as Gordon's War , Black Girl and Cotton Comes to Harlem . Along with Bill Cosby and Poitier, Davis was one of a handful of black actors able to find commercial success while avoiding stereotypical roles prior to 1970, which also included a significant role in the 1965 movie The Hill alongside Sean Connery plus roles in The Cardinal and The Scalphunters . However, Davis never had the tremendous commercial or critical success that Cosby and Poitier enjoyed. As a playwright, Davis wrote Paul Robeson: All-American, which is frequently performed in theatre programs for young audiences.

In 1976, Davis appeared on Muhammad Ali's novelty album for children, The Adventures of Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay . [10]

Ossie Davis at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. (Actor Ossie Davis.) - NARA - 542018.tif
Ossie Davis at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.

Davis found recognition late in his life by working in several of director Spike Lee's films, including Do The Right Thing , Jungle Fever , She Hate Me and Get on the Bus . He also found work as a commercial voice-over artist and served as the narrator of the early-1990s CBS sitcom Evening Shade , starring Burt Reynolds, where he also played one of the residents of a small southern town.

In 1999, Davis appeared as a theater caretaker in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra film The Ghosts of Christmas Eve , which was released on DVD two years later.

For many years, he hosted the annual National Memorial Day Concert from Washington, DC. His distinguished bearing made him a perfect choice for the concert. Following his passing, the hosting duties passed on to the twosome of Gary Sinise and Joe Mantegna.

Davis's last role was a several episode guest role on the Showtime drama series The L Word , as a father struggling with the acceptance of his daughter Bette (Jennifer Beals) parenting a child with her lesbian partner. In his final episodes, his character was taken ill and died. His wife Ruby Dee was present during the filming of his own death scene. That episode, which aired shortly after Davis's own death, aired with a dedication to the actor. [11]


In 1989, Ossie Davis and his wife, actress/activist Ruby Dee, were named to the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame. In 1995, they were awarded the National Medal of Arts, the nation's highest honor conferred to an individual artist on behalf of the country and presented in a White House ceremony by the President of the United States. [12] And in 2004, they were recipients of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors. [13] According to the Kennedy Center Honors:

"The Honors recipients recognized for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts— whether in dance, music, theater, opera, motion pictures, or television — are selected by the Center's Board of Trustees. The primary criterion in the selection process is excellence. The Honors are not designated by art form or category of artistic achievement; the selection process, over the years, has produced balance among the various arts and artistic disciplines." [14]

In 1994, Davis was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. [15]


Davis with activist and opera star Stacey Robinson (left) in 1998. Opera star Stacey Robinson (left) with Ossie Davis in 1998.jpg
Davis with activist and opera star Stacey Robinson (left) in 1998.

Davis and Dee were well known as civil rights activists during the Civil Rights Movement and were close friends of Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr. and other icons of the era. They were involved in organizing the 1963 civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and served as its emcees. Davis, alongside Ahmed Osman, delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X. [16] He re-read part of this eulogy at the end of Spike Lee's film Malcolm X . He also delivered a stirring tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, at a memorial in New York's Central Park the day after King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

Personal life

Davis and Dee Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.jpg
Davis and Dee

In 1948, Davis married actress Ruby Dee, whom he had met on the set of Robert Ardrey's 1946 play Jeb . In their joint autobiography With Ossie and Ruby, they described their decision to have an open marriage, later changing their minds. [17] In the mid-1960s they moved to the New York suburb of New Rochelle, where they remained ever after. [18] Their son Guy Davis is a blues musician and former actor, who appeared in the film Beat Street (1984) and the daytime soap opera One Life to Live . Their daughters are Nora Davis Day and Hasna Muhammad.


Davis was found dead in a Miami hotel room on February 4, 2005. An official cause of death was not released, but he was known to have had heart problems. [19]






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  2. Ossie Davis Television Credits Archived 2012-04-23 at the Wayback Machine Official Website of Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee. 2012. Retrieved March 17, 2012
  3. Books Archived 2012-04-23 at the Wayback Machine Official Website of Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee. 2012. Retrieved March 17, 2012
  4. Dagan, Carmel Oscar-Nominated Actress Ruby Dee Dies at 91. Variety . June 12, 2014. Retrieved March 30, 2016
  5. Lifetime Honors – National Medal of Arts Archived 2013-08-26 at the Wayback Machine
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  11. Severo, Richard; Martin, Douglas (5 February 2005). "Ossie Davis, Actor, Writer and Eloquent Champion of Racial Justice, Is Dead at 87". The New York Times . Retrieved 2007-02-06.
  12. Lifetime Honors – National Medal of Arts Archived 2013-08-26 at the Wayback Machine
  13. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Archived 2012-03-25 at the Wayback Machine Kennedy Center Honors. September 2004. Retrieved March 17, 2012.
  14. 34th Annual Kennedy Center Honors Kennedy Center Honors. 2011. Retrieved March 17, 2012.
  15. "Ossie Davis". The History Makers.
  16. Davis, Ossie (February 27, 1965). "Malcolm X's Eulogy". The Official Website of Malcolm X. Archived from the original on October 6, 2014. Retrieved September 6, 2009.
  17. Sheri Stritof; Bob Stritof. "Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee on Open Marriage". About.com. Archived from the original on 2007-02-10. Retrieved 2007-01-11.Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  18. Greene, Donna. "Q&A/Ossie Davis; Involved in a Community Beyond Theater", The New York Times, October 25, 1998.
  19. "Ossie Davis found dead in Miami hotel room". Today . Associated Press. February 9, 2005.
  20. "Benjamin Banneker: The Man Who Loved the Stars". Baltimore, Maryland: Enoch Pratt Free Library. Archived from the original on 2015-09-24. Retrieved 2012-09-21.
  21. Erikson, Hal. "Review Summary: Benjamin Banneker: The Man Who Loved the Stars (1989)". The New York Times . Archived from the original on 2016-03-25. Retrieved 2012-09-21.