Russell Jelliffe and Rowena Jelliffe, Founders and Directors, Karamu House, 1891–1980 (Russell), 1892–1992 (Rowena)


The very first Special Citation ever awarded by the Cleveland Arts Prize went not to a single individual, but to a visionary couple whose life work was a beacon lighting the way through a century of turbulent social change. Their creation, Karamu House, won national acclaim as the country's first interracial theater, a respected training ground for black talent and a new kind of neighborhood center where people and cultures shared important insights and ideas.

As seniors at Oberlin College in 1913, Rowena Woodham and Russell Jelliffe saw that the issue of race was going to be a potent force either for growth or for destruction in 20th-century America. Rowena, raised in Albion, Illinois, a utopian community, was already a seasoned suffragette who spent her weekends stumping the small towns of Ohio for the cause; Russell, the son of a jeweler from Mansfield, Ohio, had seen a black friend turned away from the YMCA as a boy. The key to changing society, the two of them agreed, was bringing together blacks and whites to work on something the community had need of.

While pursuing master's degrees in sociology at the University of Chicago, the pair were impressed by the pioneering work of Jane Addams's Hull House. And so, after their marriage in 1915, the Jelliffes moved into Cleveland's "Roaring Third" Ward, a roiling stew of white ethnics and southern blacks come north in search of opportunity. The Jelliffes found something else as they lived and worked among the people and children of the neighborhood: a hunger for culture. With funds from Second Presbyterian Church, where Russell was employed by the men's club, they established the Playhouse Settlement.

Traditional settlement houses offered recreation programs, not education and culture, and tended to skirt the race issue by having separate days or facilities for blacks and whites. Convinced that people have always understood one another best when they shared in one another's culture, the Jelliffes built their entire program around integration and the arts. The Dumas Dramatic Club soon became the heart of the operation.

Renamed the Gilpin Players after the famous black actor Charles Gilpin in 1923, the troupe built a national reputation, attracting such important talents as poet/playwright Langston Hughes, who wrote six plays for them in one four-year period. Between 1920 and 1946, Rowena directed some 100 productions.

When the first theater (housed in a former German saloon at East 38th and Central) burned in 1939, it was a stage around which the new building at East 89th and Central was built with the help of a nationwide fundraising drive. Dedicated in 1949, it was given the name Karamu, from the Swahili word for "meeting place." Indeed, so strong was its tradition of interracial cooperation that it sailed like a flagship of goodwill and a vanguard of future harmony through the riot-torn '60s.

The Jelliffes retired in 1963. Russell died in 1980, Rowena in 1992 at the age of 100. But their legacy lives on.

— Dennis Dooley

Cleveland Arts Prize
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