Iconic actress Ruby Dee, who passed away on June 11, 2014, at the age of 91, will be remembered for her graceful presence on the stage and before the camera, but she will also be celebrated as a civil rights activist.
Born Ruby Ann Wallace on Oct. 27, 1922, in Cleveland, the award-winning star was nonetheless a true New Yorker. She and her family moved to Harlem amid the height of the Harlem Renaissance. After high school she attended Hunter College, where she discovered her love of the theater, performing in Shakespearean productions and in the play South Pacific. She also studied at the Harlem-based American Negro Theatre, where she met her future husband, Ossie Davis. They would fall in love while working together on a tour of Anna Lucasta.
During her illustrious career, Dee landed some of the era’s most prominent roles for African-American women. She was also the first black woman to have lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival. Dee won many awards for her stage work, including the Obie Award for her role in Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena; a Drama Desk Award for her performance in Alice Childress’ Wedding Band; and an Ace Award for her work in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Dee also appeared in more than 50 films, including A Raisin in the Sun (1961), Uptight (1968), Buck and the Preacher (1972) and Do the Right Thing (1989). She also appeared in such TV productions as Roots: The Next Generations (1979). She was nominated seven times for the Emmy, eventually winning in 1991 for her performance in Decoration Day.
In 2008, at age 85, she received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress for her role in American Gangster. She told the Associated Press that she never felt snubbed by the Academy for not being nominated before then. “I didn’t have the kind of talent or personality that kept me dreaming about Hollywood,” she said. “They don’t hire little colored girls to do this or that. After I got that in my head, I took another direction.”
Dee’s life beyond stage and film was also about commitment and passion. Active in the civil rights movement, she was a member of the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Council. She and her husband, who counted Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X among their friends, eulogized Malcolm X at his funeral in 1965 and his widow, Betty Shabazz, at hers in 1997. Dee and Davis also traveled to Lagos, Nigeria, as goodwill ambassadors.
Ruby Dee was equally committed to her life with her husband, to whom she was married for almost 57 years. (Davis passed away in 2005.) In the book With Ossie & Ruby: In This Life Together, the couple took turns telling tales about their acting, activism, marriage and parenting (they had one son and two daughters). The pair were honored together for their artistic achievements, receiving the National Medal of Arts in 1995 and the Screen Actors Guild’s Life Achievement Award in 2000. They were inducted into the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame in 1989.
Monée Fields-White is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.