History of Karamu House

Karamu House (f. 1915), a performing arts theater and former settlement house that promotes interracial activities and cooperation, is located at the corner of East 89th Street and Quincy Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. Karamu House represents the first serious effort at creating an interracial institution for the performing arts in the United States. It was originally known as the Playhouse Settlement and was first located at 2239 East 38th Street in an area then known as the "Roaring Third." It was founded by Russell W. Jelliffe (1891-1980) and his wife Rowena Woodham Jelliffe (1892-1992). The Jelliffes graduated from Oberlin College in 1914 and from there went to the University of Chicago where they received master's degrees in sociology in 1915, the year they married.

The idea for Karamu House grew out of Russell Jelliffe's employment with the Men's Club of the Second Presbyterian Church after the couple's move to Cleveland. Dr. Dudley P. Allen, a member of the club, came up with the original suggestion for a settlement house for the city's black community, but he died in January 1915 before the project came to fruition. Allen's concept was enthusiastically endorsed by local and national leaders including Booker T. Washington who forwarded a personal letter of encouragement. In addition, the Jelliffes saw a need to provide activities and social services for the city's growing black population to assist in their transition from rural Southern life to an urban setting. They faced pressure to create a settlement house exclusively for the black community, but their vision was of a racially integrated institution. The Jelliffes' dream prevailed. Originally called the Playhouse Settlement, the organization's theater was renamed Karamu Theater in 1927 at the suggestion of Hazel Mountain Walker, who later became principal of Cleveland's Rutherford B. Hayes Elementary School. By 1941, the entire settlement had taken the name Karamu House. The term "Karamu" is a Swahili word meaning "place of joyful meeting or gathering."

Although Karamu House provided a wide variety of activities for local residents, the performing arts became the major focus of its mission by 1920. The Dumas Dramatic Club was created to support and encourage this interest. In 1922 the theater troupe's name was changed to The Gilpin Players in honor of noted black actor Charles Gilpin. During the 1920s and 1930s works by many accomplished playwrights were produced at Karamu, including those of Zora Neale Hurston, Eugene O'Neill and Langston Hughes, the latter of whose career was launched there. In 1939 the house (which included the theater) was destroyed by fire. Because of the national emergency created by the onslaught of World War II, the rebuilding of the theater did not begin until the late 1940s, with completion occurring in 1949. The Jelliffes' mission of an interracial institution continued from this point until the late 1960s when, under the leadership of new director Kenneth Snipes (the Jelliffes had retired in 1963), the focus changed. Under growing pressure from Black Nationalist groups of the era, Karamu's mission became one of promoting black theater and plays specifically about the black experience. During this era, white participation in the theater's activities dropped off dramatically. This era did produce some critically acclaimed work and resulted in the formation of a professional troupe of actors. In 1982, however, the troupe was dissolved, and Karamu formally returned to its original mission as an interracial organization.

(For further historical background, see Cora Geiger Newald's unpublished manuscript, "Karamu: 48 Years of Integration Through the Arts').

click here to view the Encyclopedia of Cleveland history entry for Karamu House

click here to view the Encyclopedia of Cleveland history entry for Russell Jelliiffe

click here to view the Encyclopedia of Cleveland history entry for Rowena Jelliffe
click here to view the Encyclopedia of Cleveland history entry for Langston Hughes