Osceola Macarthy Adams


Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Osceola Macarthy Adams, 1890-1983

By Evan Elizabeth Hart
Assistant Professor, Missouri Western State University

Osceola Macarthy Adams (often known by her stage name Osceola Archer) was born in Albany, GA on June 13, 1890, becoming an important activist and artist. While at Howard University, Adams helped found the important sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. She also found a passion for theater while at university, becoming one of the first black stage directors in the country and an instructor for other black actors. Throughout her life as an actress and clothing designer, Adams also dedicated herself to racial and gender equality.

Adams was born to parents Charles Hannibal Macarthy (1862-1922) and Julia Ann Johnson (1870-1905). Her father, a life insurance executive, raised Adams with a strong emphasis on education. She first enrolled at Fisk University Preparatory School in Nashville before seeking her degree at Howard University. Classmates described Adams as a naturally dramatic woman, so it came as no surprise that Adams's interests at Howard leaned toward theater. While at Howard, Adams joined the Howard Players Theater group (1911) and the Howard College Dramatic Club (1910). She made her stage debut during her senior year, performing as Pauline in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Lady of Lyons.

It was also at Howard that Adams, along with twenty-one other female students, came together to establish a black sorority on campus. The young women – most of whom were serving in various leadership positions on campus (Adams herself was class secretary) – were frustrated by the lack of a nationwide sorority dedicated to the social issues plaguing black Americans at the time. Concerned with continued lynchings throughout the South and aware of the privilege they had as young women at a prestigious university, the twenty-two women founded Delta Sigma Theta, officially, on January 13, 1913. Adams served as the national treasurer of the organization, and later helped found the Lambda chapter of the sorority in Chicago.

Although advancing black women's education was one of the top priorities of the sorority, it did not escape Adams's notice that there was a woman's suffrage march scheduled in Washington, D.C. on March 3, 1913. As a skilled politician, Adams began encouraging her sorors to agree to march in the parade. Adams was also partially responsible for the administration's decision to allow the young women to participate in the march, despite the fact that Dean Kelly Miller was less than supportive of the fight for woman's suffrage. The sorors agreed to a male chaperone – professor T. Montgomery Gregory – who knew Adams through his participation in Howard's Dramatic Club. Although march organizers tried to force black women to march at the back of the parade, the Deltas opted to march with their state's delegations, despite abusive language both from the crowd and white suffragists. The march was such a success that W.E.B. DuBois took time to praise the young women in the April, 1913 issue of The Crisis.

Adams graduated from Howard in 1913. In 1915 she married Numa Pompilius Garfield Adams, a chemistry instructor and Adams's former teacher. Adams gave birth to her only child, Charles, on October 20, 1916. In March, 1920, Numa entered Rush Medical School at the University of Chicago, so the couple moved to Illinois. As Numa completed his studies, Adams worked as a fashion designer at J. Reinhardt & Co. Their life in Chicago continued until Numa was appointed the first black dean of Howard University's Medical School. After a short time, Adams – with Numa's support – decided to enter New York University's graduate program in theater. During her time at NYU she made her Broadway debut in Elmer Rice's Between Two Worlds in 1934. A year later she starred in Archibald MacLeish's Panic, a short-lived play which featured an integrated cast. She then accepted a teaching position at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina.

After Numa's death in 1940, Adams and her son moved to New York permanently. From 1940-1949 she worked as a director for the American Negro Theater (ANT) in Harlem. She also worked as an acting coach. It was at the ANT that Adams mentored actors Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, directing both men in their acting debuts in the play Days of Our Youth. In 1946, she left Harlem – at least during the summers - to become resident director at the Putnam County Playhouse in Mahopac, New York.

Adams continued acting through the rest of her life, while also dedicating her life to racial equality, especially in theater. She served on the union's Committee on Minority Affairs, pushing for equality for actors of color. She was also a member of the executive committee of the Stage Door Canteen (1942), a venue for American and Allied servicemen in NYC, leading to an award for distinguished service from the U.S.O. She was also active in Actors Equity (1913), a labor union representing actors of live theatrical performance. She served on the union's Committee on Minority Affairs, pushing for equality for actors of color. Adams herself pushed for a boycott of the National Theater which denied black patrons entrance. Adams herself used to disguise herself in order to attend plays at the National when she was younger. Ultimately the boycott led to Actors Equity changing its constitution to forbid actors to play to segregated audiences. The National eventually changed its own policies.

In 1978, Delta Sigma Theta named an award for achievement in the arts after her. Adams continued acting, especially in TV commercials, throughout the 1970s. Adams died of natural causes at her home in New York City on November 20, 1983.


Giddings, Paula. In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement. New York: Amistad, 2006.

Harris, Jessica. “Women of Vision, Catalysts for Change: The Founders of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.” In Black Greek-Letter Organizations in the Twenty-First Century: Our Fight Has Just Begun, Edited by Gregory S. Parks, 75-64. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2008.

Hine, Darlene Clark. Black Women in America: Volume I. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998, pp. 41-42.

Tilley, Kathy. “Black Sorority Founders Meet Here.” The Atlanta Constitution, August 20, 1973.


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