As published in South Carolina Black News.
1199 Launch of Ossie Davis Education Endowment
Honors Legacy of Activist, Actor
On February 29th at Local 1199/SEIU, Bread and Roses Cultural Project, an educational endowment, was launched to honor the legacy of beloved actor and activist Ossie Davis (1917-2005). Participating in this gala theatrical fundraiser were legendary actress Ruby Dee, wife of Ossie Davis, and renowned performers, activists, and friends: Harry Belafonte; Lou Gossett, Jr.; Alan Alda; Odetta; Rev. James Forbes—all founding supporters of the Campaign for the Ossie Davis Endowment.
Featured was a revival of "The People of Clarendon County," a short play written by Ossie Davis in 1955 to celebrate the historic Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, outlawing segregation in public schools. It was just published by Third World Press, in a book I have the honor of editing: The People of Clarendon County—A Play by Ossie Davis, with Photographs and Historical Documents, and Essays on the Education That Can End Racism. That education is Aesthetic Realism, founded in 1941 by the philosopher Eli Siegel. As I write in the Introduction, Ossie Davis believed the combination of his play and this education could be powerful in opposing racism.
Dramatic readings of "The People of Clarendon County" are serving as a platform to launch the fundraising for the Endowment. The goal is to raise $5 million—$1 million during each of five years—to become self-perpetuating. The plan is to bestow 3 to 5 full college scholarships annually, to African American students who demonstrate a commitment to careers in behalf of justice and service to the community. Ossie Davis Scholars, who excel in the arts and sciences, will continue his passion for education and activism.
The revivals of the play, which began at the Schomburg Center, directed by Woodie King, Jr., will continue on a nationwide fundraising tour with Hilda Willis as producing director. At the 1199 gala, special guests included George Gresham, president of Local 1199—representing 300,000 healthcare workers—who presented a check for $25,000 to the Endowment, and Haki Madhubuti, publisher of Third World Press, said that profits from books sold at the tour events will benefit the Endowment.
Honoring the Past
The play tells the story of Rev. Joseph DeLaine and other brave parents in rural South Carolina who were willing to face death for their children to be educated. Their lawsuit, later combined with others as Brown v. Board was argued by the NAACP legal team led by Thurgood Marshall.
It was poetic justice that this revival of "The People of Clarendon County" was at Local 1199, which Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee supported for decades. They protested, rallied, and walked picket lines to fight for living wages and dignity for low-paid hospital and healthcare workers (as seen in several photographs in the book). When, in 1955, revered union leader and founder of Bread and Roses, Moe Foner, director of Local 1199, asked Ossie to write a dramatic sketch for Negro History Week, he eagerly responded with "The People of Clarendon County." The enthusiastic audience of union brothers and sisters saw it performed by the young actors, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Sidney Poitier. While this play influenced other dramatic works on the subject, and Ossie and Ruby had a life-long productive relationship with Local 1199, "The People of Clarendon County" was essentially forgotten.
"So You Think There's Life in It?"
At the Schomburg Center readings, I had the pleasure of describing conversations with Ossie Davis in 2004 which led to the book. I'd sent him articles I'd written for South Carolina Black News and other journals, including a story about Reverend DeLaine. In them I wrote about what Aesthetic Realism explains is the cause of racism and of every instance of human injustice—contempt: "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." —And the answer: criticism of contempt, including in oneself, and seeing that true individuality increases by wanting to know and be fair to the world and people. I also wrote about lectures given by Eli Siegel, from whose passion and conviction I learned to see the feelings of other people as real, and as deep as my own!
As Ossie Davis and I spoke, I learned of his unpublished play. When I found the original manuscript at the Schomburg—he said I'd "unearthed" it—I was thrilled by what I read! I'll always remember Ossie's excitement when I called to tell him I'd found it, and that I imagined children acting it in schools. "So you think there's life in it?" he asked.
"I do, very much" I replied, and mentioned my idea of writing an introduction to it which would have what Aesthetic Realism explains about the cause of and answer to all prejudice.
"Yes, yes," he said. "You certainly have my permission without any restrictions—to do what you feel is best."
A Long Walk from Georgia Leads to an Endowment
One way of understanding what education meant to Ossie Davis, is to know that while he wanted to learn, growing up poor and black made it almost impossible. However, at the tender age of 17, with a ten-dollar-bill pinned to his clothes, he walked and hitch-hiked from Georgia to Washington, DC to attend Howard University. His own experience, studies, and interest in people and events unfolding in America in the 1940s-1950s, made Ossie Davis keenly aware of sacrifices African Americans were willing to make for education. "The People of Clarendon County," about the quest for knowledge and justice, says much about the quest of the man who wrote it, and about the woman he married, Ruby Dee, and their individual and joined lives as artists and activists.
On February 29th at Local 1199, Ruby Dee, with power, humor, and conviction, revived the role of Mary Ragin—whose child attended a broken down segregated school—which she had played those many years ago. Alan Alda, Lou Gossett, Jr. and Rev. James Forbes, brought that history to life in a union hall where this drama began—after 53 years!
Alice Bernstein is a journalist and Aesthetic Realism Associate whose articles appear nationwide (www.AliceBernstein.net).