Monday, April 21, 2014

Beginning the Dee-Davis Archives

Contributed by Arminda Thomas, Curator for the Ruby Dee/Ossie Davis Archives

Photo from the documentary Life's Essentials with Ruby Dee, courtesy of Muta'Ali Muhammad

I began working with Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis in 1997. They were in the process of writing a joint autobiography to be published just ahead of their fiftieth anniversary, and I was brought in as a research assistant to help keep the dates and decades straight. I had assumed I would basically be living in the New York Public Library for the summer, but a couple of weeks into the assignment Ms. Dee suggested that I could find almost everything I needed in their home. She set up a temporary workspace for me in the basement and proceeded to have dozens of boxes and bags of newspapers, magazines, letters, clippings, programs and photos sent down for my perusal. Ms. Dee also thought it would be helpful if the materials were easily available to them in the evenings and weekends, so I began organizing it into binders and cleared some shelf space to store them. By the time the book was published, I had put together 32 binders that I was proud to call the Dee-Davis Archives. The Davises, also pleased, decided they might as well show me the rest of it. And I have been in the basement ever since.

In addition to its memory-jogging benefits, having the archives proved advantageous to the Davises in making accessible a more complete view of their legacy to the various organizations seeking to honor and award them, particularly in these later years. If retrospectives were going to happen anyway, it was important to Mr. Davis and Ms. Dee that they didn’t begin with A Raisin in the Sun and end with Do the Right Thing. The archives became a tool they could use to shine a light on some of the lesser-recognized productions, colleagues, and causes that they believed merited attention. With their history in hand, it was possible to share with those who came calling—through scanned material, a visit to the premises, or a virtual trip to their website (designed with the aim of giving context to their credits) and YouTube channel

Photo from the documentary Life's Essentials with Ruby Dee, courtesy of Muta'Ali Muhammad

The Davises were active on many fronts, artistically and civically, so I think it is worth noting that a significant amount of the archives reflects their lives as theatre artists and provides fascinating glimpses into New York’s various theatrical corners—on Broadway and Off-Broadway, in the libraries and in the union halls.  And in addition to the productions they took part in, we have over 400 programs and playbills saved from their own theatre-goings (some with their impressions noted on the covers). As a dramaturg, I have often felt that my job is one long amazing Continuing Ed program.

Photo from the documentary Life's Essentials with Ruby Dee, courtesy of Muta'Ali Muhammad

I began with basically no archival knowledge, and little I could find on the Internet to guide me. I was winging it, and while I believe the end results hold up pretty well, in some respects my ignorance is apparent. I say that not to flog myself, but to note that a novice in my position now has many more resources available. The American Theatre Archive Project (of which I am a member) has developed an archiving manual for theatre companies which I would heartily recommend to anyone faced with the task of organizing several decades—or even several months—of a theatre’s history.

Photo by Arminda Thomas

Since 1997, Arminda Thomas has worked at Dee-Davis Enterprises as archivist, dramaturg, and literary associate. She served as executive producer and abridger for the Grammy-winning audio book With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together (Hachette, 2006) and as in-house editor of Life Lit By Some Large Vision (Atria, 2006), a collection of Davis' speeches and essays.


  1. Go on wit' yo' bad self, Ms. Thomas!

  2. Amazing to have the link to the Archiving Manual! Thanks!! ~ Heather Cunningham