Ruby Dee

Ruby Dee

Ruby Dee in 1972
Born Ruby Ann Wallace
(1922-10-27)October 27, 1922
Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.
Died June 11, 2014(2014-06-11) (aged 91)
New Rochelle, New York, U.S.
Alma mater Hunter College
Occupation Actress, poet, playwright, screenwriter, journalist, activist
Years active 1940–2013
Spouse(s) Frankie Dee Brown (approx 1941–1945; divorced)
Ossie Davis (1948–2005; his death)
Children 3, including Guy Davis

Ruby Dee (October 27, 1922 – June 11, 2014) was an American actress, poet, playwright, screenwriter, journalist and civil rights activist. She is perhaps best known for originating the role of "Ruth Younger" in the stage and film versions of A Raisin in the Sun (1961). Her other notable film roles include The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), and Do the Right Thing (1989).

For her performance as Mahalee Lucas in American Gangster (2007), she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Female Actor in a Supporting Role.

She was a Grammy, Emmy, Obie and Drama Desk winner. She was also a National Medal of Arts, Kennedy Center Honors and Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award recipient.

She was married to Ossie Davis, with whom she frequently performed, until his death in 2005.[1]

Early life

Dee was born Ruby Ann Wallace on October 27, 1922, in Cleveland, Ohio,[2] the daughter of Gladys (née Hightower) and Marshall Edward Nathaniel Wallace, a cook, waiter and porter.[3] After her mother left the family, Dee's father remarried, to Emma Amelia Benson, a schoolteacher.[4][5][6][7]

Dee was raised in Harlem, New York.[8] She attended Hunter College High School and went on to graduate from Hunter College with a degree in Romance languages in 1945.[9] She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta.[10]


Dee joined the American Negro Theater as an apprentice, working with Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Hilda Simms.[9] She made several appearances on Broadway. Her first onscreen role was in That Man of Mine in 1946. She received national recognition for her role in the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story.[8] In 1965, Dee performed in lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and Cordelia in King Lear, becoming the first black actress to portray a lead role in the festival. Her career in acting crossed all major forms of media over a span of eight decades, including the films A Raisin in the Sun, in which she recreated her stage role as a suffering housewife in the projects, and Edge of the City. She played both roles opposite Poitier.[9]

Photo of a scene from the play A Raisin in the Sun. From left: Dee, (Ruth Younger); Claudia McNeil, (Lena Younger); Glynn Turman, (Travis Younger); Sidney Poitier, (Walter Younger) and John Fielder, (Karl Lindner).

During the 1960s, Dee appeared in such politically charged films as Gone Are the Days and The Incident, which is recognized as helping pave the way for young African-American actors and filmmakers. In 1969, Dee appeared in 20 episodes of Peyton Place.[8] She appeared as Cora Sanders, a Marxist college professor, in the Season 1/Episode 14 of Police Woman, entitled “Target Black" which aired on Friday night, January 3, 1975. The character of Cora Sanders was obviously, but loosely, influenced by the real-life Angela Y. Davis. She appeared in one episode of The Golden Girls' sixth season. She played Queen Haley in Roots: The Next Generations, a 1979 miniseries.[8]

Dee was nominated for eight Emmy Awards, winning once for her role in the 1990 TV film Decoration Day.[11] She was nominated for her television guest appearance in the China Beach episode, "Skylark". Her husband Ossie Davis (1917–2005) also appeared in the episode. She appeared in Spike Lee's 1989 film Do the Right Thing, and his 1991 film Jungle Fever.[8]

In 1995, she and Davis were awarded the National Medal of Arts.[12] They were also recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004. In 2003, she narrated a series of WPA slave narratives in the HBO film Unchained Memories.[13] In 2007 the winner of the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album was shared by Dee and Ossie Davis for With Ossie And Ruby: In This Life Together, and former President Jimmy Carter.[9][14]

Dee by Carl Van Vechten, September 25, 1962

Dee was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2007 for her portrayal of Mama Lucas in American Gangster. She won the Screen Actors Guild award for the same performance. At 83 years of age, Dee is currently the second oldest nominee for Best Supporting Actress, behind Gloria Stuart who was 87 when nominated for her role in Titanic. This was Dee's only Oscar nomination.[15]

On February 12, 2009, Dee joined the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College orchestra and chorus, along with the Riverside Inspirational Choir and NYC Labor Choir, in honoring Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday at the Riverside Church in New York City. Under the direction of Maurice Peress, they performed Earl Robinson's The Lonesome Train: A Music Legend for Actors, Folk Singers, Choirs, and Orchestra, in which Dee was the Narrator.[16]

Dee's last role in a theatrically-released film was in the Eddie Murphy comedy A Thousand Words, in which she portrayed the mother of Murphy's protagonist. Perhaps, her penultimate film role is in 1982, which premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival[17] and was released on home video on March 1, 2016.[18] It is unknown whether her final role will ever be seen, as King Dog was in production at the time of her death,[19] and no release date has ever been announced.

Personal life and activism

Ruby Wallace married blues singer Frankie Dee Brown in 1941, and began using his middle name as her stage name. The couple divorced in 1945.[9] Three years later she married actor Ossie Davis, whom she met while costarring in Robert Ardrey's 1946 Broadway play Jeb.[20] Together, Dee and Davis wrote an autobiography in which they discussed their political activism and their decision to have an open marriage (later changing their views).[21][22] Together they had three children: son, blues musician Guy Davis, and two daughters, Nora Day and Hasna Muhammad. Dee was a breast cancer survivor of more than three decades.[23]

Dee speaking in 2006

In 1979, the Supersisters trading card set was produced and distributed; one of the cards featured Dee's name and picture.[24]

Dee and Davis were well-known civil rights activists.[25] Dee was a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1963, Dee emceed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.[26] Dee and Davis were both personal friends of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, with Davis giving the eulogy at Malcolm X's funeral in 1965.[27] In 1970, she won the Frederick Douglass Award from the New York Urban League.[8]

In 1999, Dee and Davis were arrested at 1 Police Plaza, the headquarters of the New York Police Department, protesting the police shooting of Amadou Diallo.[28]

In early 2003, The Nation published "Not In My Name", an open proclamation vowing opposition to the impending US invasion of Iraq. Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis were among the signatories, along with Robert Altman, Noam Chomsky, Susan Sarandon and Howard Zinn, among others.

In November 2005 Dee was awarded – along with her late husband – the Lifetime Achievement Freedom Award, presented by the National Civil Rights Museum located in Memphis. Dee, a long-time resident of New Rochelle, New York, was inducted into the New Rochelle Walk of Fame which honors the most notable residents from throughout the community's 325-year history. She was also inducted into the Westchester County Women's Hall of Fame on March 30, 2007, joining such other honorees as Hillary Clinton and Nita Lowey.[29] In 2009, she received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Princeton University.[14][30]


Dee died on June 11, 2014, at her home in New Rochelle, New York, from natural causes at the age of 91.[31] In a statement, Gil Robertson IV of the African American Film Critics Association said, "the members of the African American Film Critics Association are deeply saddened at the loss of actress and humanitarian Ruby Dee. Throughout her seven-decade career, Ms Dee embraced different creative platforms with her various interpretations of black womanhood and also used her gifts to champion for Human Rights. Her strength, courage and beauty will be greatly missed."[8]

“She very peacefully surrendered,” said her daughter Nora Day. “We hugged her, we kissed her, we gave her our permission to go. She opened her eyes. She looked at us. She closed her eyes, and she set sail.” Following her death, the marquee on the Apollo Theater read “A TRUE APOLLO LEGEND RUBY DEE 1922-2014".[32]

Dee was cremated, and her ashes are held in the same urn as that of Davis, with the inscription "In this thing together".[9] A public memorial celebration honoring Dee was held on September 20, 2014, at the Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan.[33]




Short subjects:




Awards and nominations




  • Davis, Ossie; Ruby Dee (1984). Why Mosquitos Buzz in People's Ears (Audio Cassette). Caedmon. ISBN 978-0-694-51187-7. 
  • Dee, Ruby (1986). My One Good Nerve: Rhythms, Rhymes, Reasons. Third World Press. ISBN 0-88378-114-X. 
  • Davis, Ossie; Dee, Ruby (1998). With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together. William Morrow. ISBN 978-0-688-15396-0. 

See also


  1. Oscar-Nominated Actress Ruby Dee Dies at 91 Carmel Dagan. Variety. June 12, 2014. Retrieved March 30, 2016
  2. "Ruby Dee marks 90th birthday with new documentary about her illustrious life with late husband Ossie Davis", New York Daily News, November 13, 2012.
  3. Watson, Elwood. "Dee, Ruby Ann Wallace (1924-2014)". Retrieved 17 April 2015.
  4. Davis, Ossie; Dee, Ruby (1998). "Ruby Is Born at Seven". With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together. William Morrow. ISBN 0-688-17582-1. Retrieved July 30, 2008.
  5. Gates, Henry Louis (2005). Arts and Letters: An A-To-Z Reference of Writers, Musicians, and Artists of the African American Experience. Running Press. ISBN 0-7624-2042-1.
  6. Lyman, Darryl (2005). Great African-American Women. Jonathan David Company, Inc. ISBN 0-8246-0459-8.
  7. "Ruby Dee profile at". July 30, 2008.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 "Screen, stage legend Ruby Dee dies at 91". Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Halzack, Sarah (October 27, 1922). "Ruby Dee, actress and civil rights activist, dies at 91". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  10. Delta Sigma Theta website
  11. "Ruby Dee Awards". IMDb. 2008. Retrieved July 30, 2008.
  12. Lifetime Honors – National Medal of Arts
  13. IMDb.
  14. 1 2 "6 great moments from Ruby Dee's legendary career | Entertain This!". Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  15. "Broadway & Hollywood Legend Ruby Dee Dies at 91 – BWWTVWorld". Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  16. "". February 1, 2009. Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  20. 1 2 3 Felicia R. Lee (April 20, 1995). "At home with: Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee; Art and Politics: Keeping It All Fresh". The New York Times. Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  21. Sheri Stritof; Bob Stritof. "Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee on Open Marriage". Retrieved 2007-01-11.
  22. "Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee on Open Marriage". Retrieved July 30, 2008.
  23. "Oscar Nominee Ruby Dee Dead at 91 – ABC News". October 16, 2013. Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  24. Wulf, Steve (2015-03-23). "Supersisters: Original Roster". Retrieved 2015-06-04.
  25. The official site of Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee,; accessed March 3, 2014.
  26. 1 2 MARK KENNEDY, AP Drama Writer. "Ruby Dee's legacy of activism, acting mourned – Houston Chronicle". Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  27. Davis, Ossie (February 27, 1965). "Malcolm X's Eulogy". The Official Website of Malcolm X. Retrieved September 6, 2009.
  28. "Showbuzz – March 24, 1999". CNN. March 24, 1999. Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  29. Staff writers (March 6, 2007). "Ruby Dee To Be Named To Women's Hall Of Fame". Archived from the original on March 6, 2007. Retrieved January 23, 2008.
  30. Princeton awards five honorary degrees News Releases. News at Princeton. Princeton University. June 2, 2009. Retrieved May 3, 2016
  31. NEUMAIER, Joe (June 12, 2014). "Ruby Dee dead at 91". New York Daily News. Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  32. Denis Slattery, Joe Dziemianowicz, Larry McShane, "Ruby Dee dead at 91: Legendary stage and screen actress — and Civil Rights leader — frequently costarred with husband Ossie Davis", New York Daily News, June 12, 2014.
  33. "Memorial Honoring Ruby Dee Held At Riverside Church", CBS, New York, September 20, 2014.
  34. 1 2 3 4 "Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee: Ruby Dee Film Credits". Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  35. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 "Ruby Dee – Filmography – Movies & TV". The New York Times. January 18, 2007. Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  36. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 "Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee: Dee Television Credits". Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  37. Yahoo Movies. "Dream Street". Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  38. ""Video Girl" Starring Meagan Good, Ruby Dee On DVD and Blu Ray This Week|Shadow and Act". Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  39. "Now You Too Will Be Able To See 'Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal'|Shadow and Act". Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  40. Sharp, Diamond. "Ruby Dee: Advice From a Legend". The Root. Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  41. Mary Emblen; Alvin Klein (January 29, 1995). "New Jersey Guide – 'Star Trek' Exhibition". The New York Times. Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  42. Scott, Jill (April 10, 2014). "Ruby Dee: Jill Scott, Kerry Washington and More on the Grande Dame". Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  43. Feb, Posted (February 20, 2001). "SAG Life Achievement Award Goes To Ossie, Ruby". Backstage. Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  44.  . "The New Metropolis Airing Tuesday Nights on LMC-TV |". Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  45. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 "Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee: Ruby Dee Stage Credits". December 9, 1948. Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  46. "Smithsonian Folkways – The Original Read-In for Peace in Vietnam – Various Artists". March 20, 2013. Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  47. "Langston Hughes – The Most Abused Poet in America?". The New York Times. June 29, 1969. Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  48. "Smithsonian Folkways – What if I am a Woman?, Vol. 1: Black Women's Speeches – Ruby Dee". March 20, 2013. Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  49. "Smithsonian Folkways – What if I am a Woman?, Vol. 2: Black Women's Speeches – Ruby Dee". March 20, 2013. Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  50. "Smithsonian Folkways – Every Tone a Testimony – Various Artists". March 20, 2013. Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  51. "Oscar-Nominated Actress Ruby Dee Dead at 91". May 21, 2014. Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  52. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Carmel Dagan. "Ruby Dee Dead: Oscar-Nominated Actress Appeared in Spike Lee Films". Variety. Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  53. "Theater Hall of Fame Adds Nine New Names". The New York Times. November 22, 1988.
  54. "Past Recipients: Crystal Award". Women In Film. Retrieved May 10, 2011.
  55. "'Missed but never forgotten' _ Ruby Dee's legacy of activism and acting mourned". Star Tribune. Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  56. Women of Vision Awards.
  57. Leeds, Jeff; Manly, Lorne (2007-02-12). "Defiant Dixie Chicks Are Big Winners at the Grammys". The New York Times. Retrieved 2015-09-20.
  58. "Iconic Actress and Activist Ruby Dee Dead at 91". Atlanta Black Star. Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  59. 1 2 Hershenson, Roberta (February 3, 2008). "For Ruby Dee at 83, Acclaim and Performances". The New York Times. Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  60. The Associated Press 2:14 p.m. EDT June 12, 2014 (November 17, 2010). "Daughter: Ruby Dee, Val-Kill medal winner, dead at 91". Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  61. "NAACP Spingarn Medal". Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  62. "Clifford Leads All Toon Nods At Daytime Emmy | Animation World Network". May 18, 2001. Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  63. "Indiantelevision dot com's Breaking News: 10 nominations for Nick in the daytime Emmy". March 22, 2003. Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  64. "Nominations Announced for the 16th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards®". Sag-Aftra. Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  65. "Nominees for 41st NAACP Image Awards announced live at press conference by Taye Diggs, Michael Strahan, Wanda Sykes, Kyle Massey, Chris Massey, Tatyana Ali and NAACP executives" (Press release). NAACP. Retrieved June 13, 2014.
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