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JELLIFFE, ROWENA WOODHAM

JELLIFFE, ROWENA WOODHAM

JELLIFFE, ROWENA WOODHAM (23 Mar. 1892-5 Apr. 1992) became a pioneer in the field of interracial theater as an outgrowth of her career as a social worker and co-founder of KARAMU HOUSE. Born and raised in New Albion, Ill., she came to Ohio in 1910 to enter Oberlin College, where she served as president of the Oberlin Women's Suffrage League and met her future husband, RUSSELL W. JELLIFFE. After a year spent jointly as graduate students at the University of Chicago, Rowena and Russell were married and came to Cleveland to establish the east side settlement house that eventually became Karamu. To help draw their largely African American constituency into the settlement's program, Mrs. Jelliffe began producing children's plays with interracial casting. An adult dramatic group, the Gilpin Players, was organized in the couple's living room in 1920. A permanent theater was opened in 1927, after 2 summers' study by Mrs. Jelliffe at the School of Theater and Dance in New York. Besides directing 100 plays at Karamu from 1920-46, she sometimes wrote plays for the children and once completed a play by LANGSTON HUGHES when the final act failed to arrive in time. Mrs. Jelliffe was also a campaigner for civil rights, helping to integrate the Wade Park Manor dining room in 1926 and marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1960s. Following their retirement and the death of Russell in 1980, Mrs. Jelliffe remained active in numerous civic and arts organizations, serving on the boards of the East Cleveland Theater and the Fine Arts Assoc. of Willoughby. She died 2 weeks after her 100th birthday, survived by 1 son, Dr. Roger Jelliffe of Calif., and 4 grandchildren.


Selby, John. Beyond Civil Rights (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1966).

Russell and Rowena Jelliffe Papers, WRHS.

Karamu House Records, WRHS.