MAHOPAC, N.Y. - When the summer days and nights of New York City grew too hot for Broadway shows, Osceola Archer could be found directing summer stock theater at the Putnam County Playhouse on Croton Falls Road in Mahopac.
Her birth name was Osceola Marie McCarthy and her married name Adams, but she was known in her professional career as Osceola Archer. Today, she is best remembered for being a pioneer as an African American woman involved in directing, acting and as a noted teacher of dramatic arts. The Putnam County Playhouse was her summer home for nearly a decade.
Archer was educated at the Albany Normal School in Georgia and attended Howard University where she was a member of the Howard Players and, according to the book “American Women Stage Directors of the Twentieth Century” by Anne Fliotsos and Wendy Vierow, made her stage debut as Pauline in Edward Bulwer Lytton’s play “The Lady of Lyons,” in 1913. That year she also became a founding member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, one of the nation’s largest black fraternal organizations. Archer was one of 22 founders who marched in the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C. alongside honorary sorority member Mary Church Terrell, a founder of the NAACP and an activist for women’s rights.
Osceola married Dr. Numa P. G. Adams, the first black dean of Howard University, and they had one son, Charles.
She continued her studies at the Master School of Design while she lived in Chicago. Later, she attended New York University and by 1936, is said to have received a Master of Drama degree. At this time, she took the stage name Osceola Archer. According to Fliotsos and Vierow, Archer was of African, European, and Indian descent and her lighter skin sometimes made it difficult for her to get cast.
Archer’s husband died in 1940 and she found her way back into theater life in New York City. She was active in Actors Equity promoting equal opportunity for Blacks and other minorities. During World War II, she was on the executive committee of the Stage Door Canteen with the American Theater Wing, where servicemen could enjoy dancing, entertainment, food, and nonalcoholic drinks free of charge, right in the heart of the theater district.
She taught at the Studio Theater school of drama, part of the American Negro Theater (ANT), from 1940 to 1949 and some of her students included Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, and other up-and-coming stars. Around this same time, from 1946 to 1956, she collaborated with Jill Miller of the Putnam County Playhouse, regionally popular for its part in the “straw hat circuit.” Archer directed and acted in over 24 productions including Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” which received rave reviews. In 1948, Archer directed the production of Katherine Garrison Chapin’s play “Sojourner Truth” at the ANT with an integrated cast that featured Miller and a relative newcomer, Harold Belafonte, another one of her ANT students.
In the recent past, author and genealogist Cliff McCarthy connected with the Putnam County Historian’s Office to research the Putnam County Playhouse Collection that was donated by Peter Bruenn, son of Jill Miller’s husband, Laurie (Laurence).
McCarthy, a Massachusetts resident, discovered his relation to Osceola when he connected with her son Charles in 1994. Although they never met in person, the two were able to determine that they were cousins, Charles’ grandfather and Cliff’s great-grandfather were brothers.
“My grandfather had passed as a white man after his time in the Navy and never looked back,” McCarthy said.
Charles died in 2000 with no heirs. He left his estate to his church and some of Osceola’s materials went to the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. The remainder of boxes of family papers and memorabilia went to McCarthy, who was deemed “next of kin.”
Included in these boxes were images of Osceola acting on stage at the Putnam County Playhouse and something else very special.
“Way down at the bottom of a box, I found a small framed portrait of a woman I didn’t recognize,” McCarthy said. “When I opened the frame, I found the name of Charles’ great-grandmother, Matilda, the enslaved woman who was our common ancestor.”
Article courtesy of Putnam County Historian’s Office & Archives