In 1915, a pair of Oberlin graduates opened a settlement house in an area of Cleveland called “The Roaring Third,” located at the corner of East 38th and Central Avenue. With foresight and vision, Russell Jelliffe and Rowena Woodham set out to establish a common ground where people of different races, religions, social and economic backgrounds could come together to seek and share common ventures.

The settlement house idea was conceived out of the principles upon which our nation was founded: that the individual is not wholly determined by his environment but has the capacity to transcend it. Each person can, by his response to his environment, change the way it affects him. Everyone can discover his own, independent significance and make his personal, distinct contribution to life. The Jelliffe’s soon discovered that the arts provided the perfect common ground. The early twenties saw a large number of African-Americans move into the area from the South. Resisting some pressure to exclude their new neighbors, the Jelliffe’s insisted that all races were welcome.

The “Playhouse Settlement” quickly became a magnet for some of the best African-American artists of the day. Dancers, printmakers, actors, writers all found a place where they could practice their crafts. The Jelliffe’s held high standards of excellence in the arts, not for the sake of excellence, but because they knew that pursuing excellence makes the greatest demands on the individual to fulfill the promise of his potential. The Playhouse Settlement was renamed Karamu, a Swahili word meaning “Place of enjoyment in the Center of the Community”, in 1941.