CLEVELAND, Ohio – If the walls of Karamu House could speak, they would tell the stories that make up the rich history of the country’s oldest African-American production theater.
The iconic cultural institution is working to preserve these stories, announcing Thursday that it will donate its archives to Case Western Reserve University. The collection – photographs, drawings, programs, posters and letters – will be held at the Kelvin Smith Library and available to the public for research, education and general interest purposes.
“Upon my arrival at Karamu House in October 2015, I began to receive requests from community members and academics across the country for copies of old posters, photos and other historical documents,” said the Minister. Karamu House President and CEO Tony Sias in a statement. “It was the impetus to organize our archives. The Cleveland Public Library and Summer on the Cuyahoga interns have been instrumental in providing leadership and support, respectively, in organizing, storing and digitizing our records. This work prepared us for conversations with the Kelvin Smith Library at Case Western Reserve University. This is a pivotal moment in Karamu’s history, offering our archival treasures to such an esteemed institution for continued preservation, global access and safeguard.
“Karamu House has long been an incubator for black actors, but more importantly, a touchstone in the black community,” added CWRU Provost and Executive Vice President Ben Vinson III. “This partnership represents not only an incredible opportunity for Case Western Reserve University, but for the entire Cleveland community. We are thrilled to share this precious archive with the world and shine a light on the incredible history of the country’s oldest African-American theater organization.
The list of people who have performed on the stages of Karamu House or who have walked through its doors over the past 106 years is indeed impressive. Names include Martin Luther King Jr., Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Robert Guillaume, Muhammad Ali, Duke Ellington Orchestra and more.
But his most famous alumnus is Langston Hughes, who took programs and classes at Karamu when he lived in Cleveland and then developed and created several of his pieces there. The donated archive includes letters written by Hughes and even a 1940s photo of the playwright standing next to a performance of the new Karamu complex on E 89th Street after the original theater was destroyed by fire in 1939.
The archives are supposed to move to the Kelvin Smith Library, located at 11055 Euclid Ave., most likely in August.