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Cleveland's premier Black cultural center gives Kelvin Smith Library a historic collection

Mark Oprea

On Jan. 15, 1940, renowned poet, playwright and novelist Langston Hughes wrote to his Cleveland friend Russell Jelliffe from New York. He was busy, he said, finishing a book, preparing for a series of lectures and considering an article on the “Negro theatre.”

Hughes also turned his thoughts to Cleveland, where he’d spent some formative years, and to the work of Jelliffe and his wife, Rowena. They were co-founders of an arts space where Hughes had taught, written and performed.

“…I hope (and know) your drive for a real center of the arts in Cleveland will be successful,” Hughes wrote. He also said that during his next trip to Cleveland he’d be “only too happy” to do a talk, a reading or in any other way help raise money locally.

The following year, the space the couple had nurtured became Karamu House, now the nation’s oldest African American producing theater and cultural arts center. And the Hughes letter is part of a treasured 100-box collection that Karamu donated in 2021 to Case Western Reserve University Kelvin Smith Library.

“The Karamu House archive has unparalleled historical value,” said library archivist Nora Blackman (GRS ’87, history), who is managing the processing of the Karamu papers. “We’re also excited because this manuscript collection—our first documenting the Black experience—represents the library’s commitment to diversifying our Special Collections holdings.”

Karamu President and CEO Tony F. Sias described the donation at the time as “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 collection provides a portal into an institution continually responding to both art and politics amid decades of change. It has records from 100 seasons of theater, dance and music performances, guest books signed by luminaries including Martin Luther King Jr., and meeting notes detailing years of internal planning, discussions and debates on subjects ranging from civil rights to world premiere theatrical productions.

Slated to be publicly available this spring, the collection tells “a story that reflects everything that was going on in the nation, in the world,” Blackman said.

a typed letter

The Karamu House collection now at Kelvin Smith Library includes a letter that Langston Hughes wrote to Russell Jelliffe, co-founder of what’s now Karamu. 

a guestbook

The Karamu House collection now at Kelvin Smith Library includes guest books that recorded visits by people including Frances Payne Bolton (the namesake of the university’s School of Nursing) and Martin Luther King Jr., whose names are next to the yellow arrow.


Page last modified: March 17, 2023