Biography / Administrative History
Scope and Content of Collection
Title: Ruth Beckford papers
Collection number: MS 60
11.5 linear feet
(22 boxes + 1 oversized box)
African American Museum & Library at Oakland (Oakland, Calif.)
Abstract: The Ruth Beckford Papers include dance programs, correspondence, lesson plans, oral histories, manuscripts, newspapers clippings,
and photographs documenting Beckford’s career as a noted African-Haitian dancer, actress, and teacher.
Languages represented in the collection:
No access restrictions. Collection is open to the public.
Materials are for use in-library only, non-circulating.
Permission to publish from the Ruth Beckford Papers must be obtained from the African American Museum & Library at Oakland.
Ruth Beckford papers, MS 60, African American Museum & Library at Oakland, Oakland Public Library. Oakland, California.
Beckford, Ruth, Penny Peak, and Jeff Friedman.
Going for happiness: an oral history of Ruth Beckford. 1995
Collection donated by Ruth Beckford to the Afro-American Center for History and Life, 1991.
Processed by Sean Heyliger, Archivist, January 15, 2015. Finding aid updated by Sean Heyliger on 2017-12-27 to add material
Biography / Administrative History
Dancer, teacher, and author Ruth Beckford was born on December 7, 1925 in Oakland, California, the youngest of four children
of Cora and Felix Beckford. Both her parents were active in Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, her father
served as secretary of the U.N.I.A. Oakland Branch and her mother worked as a Black Cross nurse. At age 3, Beckford began
taking dance lessons from Florelle Barsford and by age 8 she was performing professionally as a dancer in local vaudeville
acts with her twin brothers, Felix W. and Felix Garvey Beckford.
In 1943 during her senior year in high school, Beckford joined Katherine Dunham’s Company, training for three weeks before
performing with the company at shows on the West Coast. After high school, she attended the University of California, Berkeley
where she majored in Physical Education and studied modern dance with Caryl Cuddleback. While studying at the university,
Beckford became the first African American member of the Orchesis Modern Dance Honor Society. After graduating in 1947, she
found and directed the first recreational modern dance program in the country teaching dance classes for the Oakland Recreation
Department at DeFremery Recreation Center. She would lead the dance program for twenty years while also performing with Anna
Halprin and Welland Lathrop dance companies.
In 1954 Beckford started her own dance company, Ruth Beckford African-Haitian Dance Company, which toured across the country
performing African and Haitian dances. The company’s first performance was at the University of California, Berkeley’s Wheeler
Auditorium. In the same year, Beckford opened dance studios in Oakland and San Francisco offering classes in African-Haitian
dance using the Dunham technique. Beckford toured with her dance company, taught classes at her dance studio, and directed
the Oakland Recreation Department’s Modern Dance Program until she retired from performing dance and disbanded her dance company
in 1961 and retired from the City of Oakland in 1967. She continued teaching at her two dance studios until closing both in
After retiring from dance, Beckford shifted to writing and acting. In 1974, she signed with Grimme talent agency and she performed
in theater productions at the Oakland Ensemble Theater and parts in various television and movie roles. She appeared in Maya
Angelou’s made-for-television movies
Tapestry, the PBS television series
Up and Coming, movie roles in
The Principal (1987),
Angels in the Outfield (1994),
America’s Dream (1996), and in television commercials for Safeway, JC Penny, and Little Debbie Snacks.
Beckford began writing after she was asked by Katherine Dunham in 1975 to write her authorized biography.
Katherine Dunham: A Biography was published in 1979. She also published two cookbooks both titled,
A Little Bit of This and Some of That, and a three part play,
‘Tis The Morning of My Life, co-authored with Ron Stacker Thompson. The play was a comedy-drama about a relationship between a younger man and older
woman. Beckford produced and starred in the first production of Part I of the play at the Live Oak Theatre in Berkeley, California
in 1984, but she tore her Achilles tendon on the play’s preview performance and was forced to wear a cast for the entire production.
Productions of Part II-Part III of
‘Tis the Morning of My Life were performed at Mills College in 1986 and 1987 and a production of Part I ran at the New Federal Theatre in New York in
1989 with the original cast.
In addition to her accomplishments in dance and theater, she has been active as a motivational speaker, a dance panelist for
the National Endowment for the Arts (1972-1974), credited with creating the Black Panther Free Breakfast Program, and worked
as a counselor with the City of Oakland Job Training Partnership Act office and the Berkeley office of the Department of Social
Services. She has received numerous dance and community service awards and has been inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall
of Fame, Oakland Parks and Recreation Hall of Fame, and the Bay Area Isadora Duncan Dance Community Hall of Fame.
Scope and Content of Collection
The Ruth Beckford Papers include dance programs, correspondence, lesson plans, oral histories, manuscripts, newspapers clippings,
and photographs documenting Beckford’s career as a noted African-Haitian dancer, actress, and teacher. The papers document
the bulk of Beckford’s career from her beginning as a teenage dancer in Oakland in the 1930s through her career as a professional
dancer, actress, and teacher. The papers are organized into eight series: I. Biographical material II. Dance III. Theater
IV. Writings V. Teaching materials VI. Photographs VII. Oral histories VIII. Printed material.
Biographical material includes Beckford's resumes and biographical sketches, assorted personal correspondence, Oakland High
School graduation programs and her diploma, transcript of an oral history interview conducted by the San Francisco Performing
Arts Library and Museum, and awards presented to Beckford from various arts and community organizations. The dance series
consists of Beckford's dance programs from the 1930s-1990s, dance contracts, correspondence, newspaper clippings and Ruth
Beckford and Company publicity material. Also included are material related to Beckford's trip to Haiti and her involvement
with the Katherine Dunham Museum in East St. Louis. The bulk of the theater series document productions of Beckford's play,
Tis’ the Morning of My Life, and includes correspondence, fundraising records, production notes, cast and staff biographies, financial and legal records,
newspaper reviews, and publicity material of productions of the play in Oakland and New York City and for a possible movie
production. The series also includes Beckford’s script and promotion packet for the television series “Up and Coming,” a call
sheet and contract for “The Principle,” and assorted flyers for Oakland Ensemble Theater productions. The writings series
includes drafts of parts I-III of Beckford’s play
Tis’ the Morning of My Life, poems, a short story, “The Myth,”
A Little Bit of This … And a Little Bit of That cookbook, and How I Got to the Top or OOOOOOOOHHHH My Aching Back comic book. The series includes notes and transcripts for
various speeches given by Beckford to various performing arts and community groups.
Teaching materials include Beckford’s lesson plans and notes for teaching beginning-intermediate-advanced African-Haitian
dance classes and program descriptions and evaluations of the Oakland Recreation Department’s Modern Dance Program. Also included
are Beckford’s notes teaching Katherine Dunham’s dance techniques and two videotapes of Beckford teaching “Black dance in
action” class at Mills College in 1974.
Photographs include 542 photographs and are arranged into five subseries: Family, Dance, Theater, Katherine Dunham, and Assorted.
Family photographs includes childhood photographs of Ruth Beckford and portraits of Beckford’s mother and father, Cora and
Felix Beckford, including a portrait of them taken at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Dance photographs
consist mostly of publicity photographs of Ruth Beckford’s Dance Company and photographs of performances taken at the University
of California, Berkeley in the 1960s. The theater series includes photographs of
Tis’ the Morning of My Life productions and behind the scenes photographs of the cast and crew. The photographs of Katherine Dunham include her as a
visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley and a seminar in San Francisco, California, publicity stills
of her dance company, and at her museum in East St. Louis.
The oral histories included in the collection consist of a series of interviews conducted in 1971-1972 with prominent and
long-time African American residents in the San Francisco Bay Area. Interviews were conducted with Tom W. Anderson of the
Dining Car Cooks' and Waiters' Union Local 456; M. Robinson Baker, director of the Oakland Y.M.C.A.; Beckford’s mother, Cora
Beckford; Albert Butler, descendent of an early California family; Urania P. Cummings, artist and immigrant from the West
Indies; E.A. Daley, publisher of the
California Voice newspaper and World War I veteran; W.A. Deane, member of Marcus Garvey’s U.N.I.A.; Oakland scoutmaster William H. Golden;
California Voice sports writer Bill Hinds; Sophronia Johnson of the San-O-Bar Club, an African American social organization; Walter Thomas
Jourdan, union leader and organizer of the Miscellaneous Workers Union, Inc.; Mary C. Netherland, descendent of an early California
family; barber Sydney James Scott; Willete Smith, member St. Augustine Church (Oakland, California); Charles H. Tilghman,
printer and owner of Tilghman Press; Iantha H. Villa, North Oakland Baptist Church and California State Association of Colored
Women’s Clubs; and Oakland firefighter Bill Williams.
The printed material series consists of assorted books, newsletters, newspaper clippings, and artifacts collected by Ruth
Beckford. A majority of the items relate to dance including newspaper clippings on Beckford, convention programs she attended
or performed at, and dance programs and journals. Also included is the funeral program of her mother, Cora Beckford.
Series I. Biographical material
Series II. Dance
Series III. Theater
Series IV. Writings
Series V. Teaching materials
Series VI. Photographs
Series VII. Oral history cassette tapes
Series VIII.Printed material
The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in
the library's online public access catalog.
African American dance.
African American dance--History.
African American dance teachers.
African American dancers--Biography.
Dance, Black--United States.