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Karamu House donates treasured archives, including letters from Langston Hughes, to CWRU

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Posted at 3:32 PM, Jun 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-25 15:53:20-04

CLEVELAND — Cleveland’s historic Fairfax neighborhood has been home to the Karamu House for over 100 years and counting. But the theater’s most treasured archives, like photographs, drawings, programs, posters and letters, will soon have a new permanent home where the public can access them for research, education and pure enjoyment.

The Karamu House is donating its archives to Case Western Reserve University. The special collection will be preserved at the Kelvin Smith Library.

“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.”

The move to the library comes after the theater’s current president and CEO, Tony Sias, received requests upon his arrival to the theater in 2015 from the community and scholars from around the country for copies of historical documents.

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If the walls of the country’s oldest African American producing theatre and cultural arts center could talk, it would reveal the stories of notable guests and playwrights like Langston Hughes. The Karamu House guest book alone has signatories from Martin Luther King Jr., Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, musicians from Duke Ellington’s Orchestra and visitors from across the globe.

Along with Hughes, other Karamu House notables include authors Zora Neale Hurston and Lorraine Hansberry. Distinguished alumni who have made a name for themselves include James Pickens ("Grey’s Anatomy"), Vaness Bell Calloway ("Coming to America"), Imani Hakim, ("Everybody Hates Chris" and Debra Byrd (vocal coach and arranger for "American Idol" and "Canadian Idol").

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“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.”

The archives that will be available in the Kelvin Smith Library include production programs and stage management documents, correspondence, artist biographies, and headshots.

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Muhammad Ali at the Karamu House.

The Kelvin Smith Library will be home to the archives of the Karamu House and the Cleveland Play House, allowing researchers to mine these collections and make connections between the two, Case Western Reserve University said.

“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.”

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