Children of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis discuss recent Schomburg acquisition of parents’ papers

NADINE MATTHEWS | 11/22/2018, midnight
Ruby Dee was still alive when she and her daughters began to think about the best place to house the ...
Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis with their children

Ruby Dee was still alive when she and her daughters began to think about the best place to house the documents and artifacts that encapsulated Dee’s life with fellow actor and activist Ossie Davis. The Schomburg was always at the forefront of their minds as an ideal location. After all, the storied institution had always been a fixture in their family. One of their daughters, Nora Davis Day explained, “We didn’t formally talk about it going to the Schomburg, but they had already donated some of their work to the Schomburg, so it was a no-brainer that would be the first place we might talk about.”

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of at the New York Public Library, has acquired the full archive of the couple known equally for their acting, activism and strong personal partnership. The press release issued by the Schomburg stated, “The extensive archive includes more than 178.85 linear feet of material spanning eight decades of the couple’s careers in theater, film and television; their near 60-year relationship and marriage; and their social, civic and political activities between 1932 and 2014.”

The collection includes not only intimate letters between the couple but also correspondence with public figures such as Spike Lee, Malcolm X, Langston Hughes and Lena Horne. There are also diaries, news clippings, notebooks, scripts, photographs and audio and moving image recordings. The archive is scheduled to be available to researchers and New York Public Library cardholders in spring 2019.

In their first interview since the announcement of the acquisition, the couple’s two daughters spoke with the Amsterdam News about how they came to their decision. One of the things they stressed was the long relationship that Dee and Davis had with the Schomburg. Day said, “Each of our parents was involved with that building before they even met each other.” Dee performed at the American Negro Theatre, then located at the 135th Street Branch, now the Schomburg Center. Davis spent much of his time at the Schomburg, too. Day explained, “Dad as a young man, studied there. He often could not afford books, and so he would go to the library.”

Son Hasna Muhammad revealed that they, along with their older brother Guy Davis, were guided by the couple’s joint autobiography in deciding what should be part of the archive collection, and that the process was an emotional one. “We found such treasures going through their things,” said Muhammad. “Sometimes we were laughing, sometimes we were crying and sometimes it was just Amen and uhmm because of the richness of the artifacts that they left.”

Arguably the most notable Black power couple of the 20th century, Dee and Davis spoke out against the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, organized artists and entertainers for the 1963 March on Washington and demonstrated against the Vietnam War and the Iraq Wars. Davis delivered the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral. Activism for civil rights and social justice was an integral part of their lives. Asked what they believe the couple would think of their relevance to the developments in today’s society, Muhammad replied, “Their voices are needed now. The Schomburg, and hopefully all research museums and libraries, preserve these documents and artifacts, and we believe that their work deserves the attention and the care that a facility like the Schomburg could give. This way it could be available to the people and to the public so that they, too, could learn from Mom and Dad—their guidance, their caution, their love, their voices. People need to hear and see now. It’s critical people be able to connect what’s going on now to what happened before; getting that historical perspective.”

Just the artifacts detailing the couple’s political and artistic work are impressive, but the children also made the decision to include documents showcasing their parents’ private relationship, which they point out would have reached its 70th-anniversary milestone this coming Dec. 9. Day explained, “When people think of Ossie and Ruby, they think of their love, their art and their activism. They shied away from the term role model, but they figured out a way to make their relationship work, and they were able and eager to share that information with folks who asked.” The activism itself was a component of their relationship that could not be separated from it. Day said, “They had that central thing around which they formed their life and that was the struggle. They always said there was always a seat at the table for the struggle. If it got petty or small, it soon became part of a very large picture. We believe that their love and their relationship is a very important component of who they are and that we share their love for each other with the world not just for us, but for everybody.”