Raiford Chatman Davis was born on December 18th, 1917 in Cogdell, Georgia to parents Kince and Laura Davis. While registering with his mother at the county courthouse Davis’ name would change from R.C. for Raiford Chatman to Ossie, due to the county clerk’s misunderstanding of the pronouncing of Davis’ name. Because the clerk at the county court house was a white man Davis’ mother did not tell him that he spelled her son’s name was wrong. Davis grew up in Waycross, Georgia where he attended Central High School and began his journey as a writer. He was tired of the constant racism blacks in the South faced so he decided to voice his frustrations through his writings. After high school Davis attended Howard University at the request of his parents but dropped out in his junior year to pursue his acting career. He moved to Harlem, New York and began his career with the Rose McClendon Players. Davis also became one of the founding students of the American Negro Theater which was founded in 1940.
From 1942 to 1946 Davis served in the Medical Corps for the United States Army during World War II. While in the Army he would continue to write and produce plays; upon returning to the United States he would land his first Broadway role in 1946. While performing in his first Broadway play Davis would meet actress Rudy Dee who he would marry two years later. In 1950 Davis made his film debut in the movie No Way Out staring Sidney Poitier, that performance was followed up by three Broadway plays No Time for Sergeants, Raisin in the Sun, and Jamaica. Davis was inspired by Poitier and refused to make his career taking roles that constantly demeaned the black race. Despite constant setbacks because of racism Davis found himself being one of the few black actors working regularly on television.
Davis was not only an actor and writer he was also a film director, some of his movies include Gordon’s War, Black Girl and Cotton Comes to Harlem. In 1961 Davis wrote and starred in his play Purlie Victorious along with his wife Ruby Dee. The play Purlie Victorious later became a movie titled Gone Are the Days which he and Ruby Dee also starred in. Later in 1970 play Purile Victorious would become a musical which was coauthored by Ossie Davis. He and Ruby Dee also made a career out of reading poetry and making recordings of literature by notable African Americans. A prominent performance in Davis’ career was his tribute to Malcolm X in 1965 where he referred to Malcolm as “Our Shining Black Prince,” a view of Malcolm that was vastly different from the one portrayed in the media. Later in 1965 Davis would star in the film The Hills with popular white actor Sean Connery followed by roles in the movies The Cardinal and The Scalphunters. Ossie Davis as a writer would always be producing new material, he wrote the play Paul Robeson: All-American, along with essays titled “The Wonderful World of Law and Order,” “The Flight from Broadway,” and “Plays of Insight Are Needed to Make the Stage Vital in Our Lives.” He would also write the play Last Dance for Sybil which was his version of Mark Twain’s work Pudd’nhead Wilson.
In 1976 Davis appeared in a Mohammad Ali production titled The Adventures of Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay. Even though Davis was a busy actor and writer he still used his platform to help fight racism and white supremacy. He would often speak out against racism, donate money, serve his communities and provide opportunities for other black actors and writers. In 1981 Ossie and Ruby Dee created and hosted their television show With Ossie and Ruby Dee on PBS, he also starred in the television series Evening Shade. In 1989 Davis would introduce himself to another generation of black film lovers with his role in the Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing. In 1992 Davis would published his first novel titled Just Like Martin, which was his tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Activism for social justice is something Davis and Ruby Dee never became too old for, in 1999 at the age of 82 Davis and his wife were arrested for protesting the police shooting of an unarmed West African immigrant in New York. In 2001 The Screen Actors Guild honored both Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee with Lifetime Achievement Awards.
Davis and Ruby Dee would form lifelong relationships with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and other champions for black rights through their continuous work in the fight against systematic racism. A little known fact is that Davis and Ruby Dee were active in the organizing of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the two went as far as serving as emcees for the event. Davis was selected to deliver the eulogy at the funeral for Malcolm X a person Davis considered a friend. In February of 2005 Davis would die due to health complications in Miami, FL and was survived by his children and wife. A great man died that day but the legacy he built with a career that lasted over six decades will never perish. He was able to live his dreams, help to make this world better, fight for the rights of black Americans, fight global injustices, become a trailblazer in the American film industry, and marry the woman of his dreams. Raiford Chatman Davis aka Ossie Davis, we proudly stand on your shoulders.