Ossie Davis Biography


Ossie Davis grew up in rural Georgia at a time when racism prevailed and segregation was the law of the land, and this experience has had a strong influence on all Davis’s work. His father, Kince Charles Davis, had to fight hard for his job on the railroad simply because of his color. The family moved about a good deal, so young Ossie went to live with his grandparents in Waycroft, Georgia, when he reached school age. His parents settled there when he was ten.

Although Kince was almost illiterate, he put great emphasis on education, and his son, an outstanding student, graduated from Center High School in 1935. Even as a teenager, Davis showed interest in a theatrical career, acting in school plays and writing a play that was produced at the high school.

He then went to live with a relative in Washington, D.C., so that he could attend Howard University, where he came under the influence of Alain Locke, an outstanding black scholar and theater critic. For his first year, Davis had a government scholarship which required that he work in the library. When the scholarship ended, he got a job in a commercial laundry, where his employer, Benjamin Singer, was so impressed by Davis that he offered the young man money above his wages to be used for tuition. Davis remained at Howard until 1938, when he asked Locke for a recommendation to Dick Campbell and Muriel Rahn, who headed a black theatrical group in New York, the Rose McClendon Players.

Once in Harlem, the young man learned all about theatrical production in the evenings, supporting himself by working during the day in the garment trade. All seemed to be going well; then came Pearl Harbor, and Davis enlisted and served with the 41st Engineers, an all-black battalion. (The armed forces were not desegregated until after World War II.) Trained as a surgical technician, he was sent to Liberia for a tour of twenty-two months. The young soldier was painfully aware of the segregation in the army itself and then experienced Jim Crowism after his transfer to a base in Missouri....

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Abramson, Doris E. Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre, 1925-1959. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969. Covers the period before Purlie Victorious.

Funke, Lewis. The Curtain Rises: The Story of Ossie Davis. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1971. Written primarily for young readers, covers Davis’s life in detail, stressing his concern with the African American experience and proposed solutions to race relations.