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Historic Karamu House donates archives to Case Western Reserve University

The items will go to the university's Kelvin Smith Library and will be accessible to the public.

CLEVELAND — Karamu House, the nation's oldest African American producing theatre and cultural arts center, announced Thursday it will donate its archives to Case Western Reserve University.

The special collection will be preserved at the Kelvin Smith Library, where it will be accessible to the public for research, education and pure enjoyment.

Among the items donated will be the theatre's historic register, including photographs, drawings, posters and the collected letters of Karamu alumnus and playwright Langston Hughes. Also included will be production programs and stage management documents, correspondence, board of director files, artist biographies and headshots—all related to the work of the theatre and its place in the city’s history. 

The works and other items donated to Case Western Reserve University will be preserved. 

“Upon my arrival at Karamu House in October of 2015, I began receiving requests from community members and scholars from around the country for copies of old playbills, pictures and other historical documents,” said Karamu House President and CEO Tony Sias. “This was the impetus to organize our archives. The Cleveland Public Library and interns from Summer on the Cuyahoga have played instrumental roles in providing leadership and support, respectively, in arranging, storing and digitizing our materials. This work prepared us for conversations with the Kelvin Smith Library at Case Western Reserve University. This is a seminal moment in Karamu’s history, gifting our archival treasures to such an esteemed institution for ongoing preservation, global access and safe keeping.”

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Karamu House was founded in 1915. It was named from the words "joyful gathering" in Swahili, and came to life in the Central neighborhood. Later, it forged as a neighborhood anchor in Fairfax, as a place where people from different races, religions and economic backgrounds could come together through the arts.

It has been featured in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Karamu House is also listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The theatre's core programs include socially relevant and professional-quality theater and arts education for all ages. Karamu also offers extensive community programming—including comedy, live jazz and spoken-word performances—that invites participation and engagement, reflection and a re-commitment to cultural values. 

“Karamu House has long been an incubator for Black actors, but more importantly a touchstone in the Black community," said 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 these treasured archives with the world and bring to light the incredible history of the nation's oldest African American producing theater organization.”

Along with Hughes, other Karamu House notables include authors Zora Neale Hurston and Lorraine Hansberry. Alumni who have distinguished themselves on stage and screen include Ruby Dee, Robert Guillaume, Ron O'Neal, Bill Cobbs, Ivan Dixon, Zelma George, Minnie Gentry and, more recently, James Pickens (Grey's Anatomy), Vanessa Bell Calloway (Coming to America), Imani Hakim (Everybody Hates Chris) and Debra Byrd (vocal coach and arranger for American Idol and Canadian Idol).

“For over 100 years, Karamu House has been an essential part of the cultural and social fabric of Cleveland,” said Arnold Hirshon, vice provost and the Lindseth Family University Librarian. “The Kelvin Smith Library is deeply honored to serve as the home of its rich archives. From its founding, Karamu brought together people of different races, religions and social and economic backgrounds to share common experiences through the theater. We look forward to making this important history available to the Cleveland community and to the world.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: The video in the player below is from a previous, unrelated story.