The children of legendary entertainers Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee gave more than the gift of a bench to founder Curtis King and the Black Academy of Arts and Letters during its annual Black Music and the Civil Rights Movement Concert on Jan. 14.
They gave it life: The bench will take its place among the memorabilia and artifacts in the Academy's James E. Kemp Gallery.
The bench was used in Davis' play Purlie Victorious, which debuted in 1961, and was later placed in the Dee-Davis home. The donation is emblematic of the couple's relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom the concert honors each year. It's an appropriate gift; but don't call it or Dee and Davis "iconic."
"We don't use the word icon," says daughter Nora Davis Day, who notes the family is also doing this as part of "Ossie Davis 100: A Centennial Celebration of the Author, Actor, Activist."
"Mom and Dad sort of fought that notion. They considered themselves soldiers in the army and there were many."
But when you tick off the list of accomplishments from the couple, who were voracious in their artistic appetites and applied the same diligence to their work during the Civil Rights Movement, other words don't quite tell the entire story.
Dee served as master of ceremonies for the 1963 March on Washington. The Oscar nominee and Screen Actors Guild Award winner for American Gangster originated the role of Ruth in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun.
Dee and Davis were both inducted into the Theater and NAACP Image Awards halls of fame. They each received a medal as part of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004. They were writers, authors, actors and capital-A activists.
Dee died in 2014 at the age of 91. Davis died in 2005 at the age of 87.
At the unveiling of the gift, the family said their parents wanted to put the bench in a place of theater. The Black Academy of Arts and Letters, a presenting organization that has two theaters and a gallery, is a good home for it.
Dee and Davis met founder King when they came to Dallas to work with KERA on With Ossie & Ruby, a television series that aired for three seasons in the 1980s.
"They were so supportive of Curtis in getting the Academy of Arts and Letters back on its feet but he was also supportive of them, especially mom," says Dee-Davis daughter Dr. Hasna Muhammad, a retired public school administrator who is also a writer and photographer. "Back in 2012, he worked with her to do excerpts from her one-woman show at the Apollo. You could just tell the love that he had for her. It just overflowed."
King and Dee also mounted a production of that show in Dallas.
"Mom and Dad were not about stars, about being stars or creating stars," says son Guy Davis, a touring performer. "They were about creating productive people who could put things on, who could produce, who could show and teach others. So the [Black] Academy of Arts and Letters, it comes across as kind of a teaching institution where people learn. That's where my folks and Dr. King and Curtis intersect."
His sister Day, who spent a career "behind the scenes making sure that things went smoothly for [her parents] and their career," agrees.
"Mom and Dad were huge supporters of [Curtis King] and he really became a close friend over the years. So we wouldn't be any place else but there for the celebration," she says.
Another new piece in the TBAAL gallery is a beaded gown from the estate of the late entertainer Della Reese (Touched by An Angel, Harlem Nights), who died in November.
According to a TBAAL spokesperson, the gallery houses "photographs, film footage, institutional documents, oral histories, celebrity memorabilia and archival ephemera" and "chronicles the cultural and artistic contributions made by African-American artists and scholars who have and continue to support TBAAL's progress."
This is the gallery's 11th season. It's open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. Call 214-743-2448 to arrange private tours for groups and schools.