Ruby Dee was a true legend who excelled in poetry and theater work in addition to her efforts as part of the civil rights movement. On June 11, 2014, it was reported by her family that at 91 years of age, Dee passed away in her home in Rochelle, New York, surrounded by her three children and seven grandchildren.
Dee was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 24, 1924, soon after her family moved to Harlem, N.Y., where she was raised. As a teenager, she wrote poetry and would send it into New York Amsterdam News, a weekly black newspaper. Dee admitted in later interviews that she was painfully shy as a teen, but had a huge desire to express herself even then. She studied arts while attending Hunter High School, which was one of the finest schools for girls. After enrolling in Hunter College, she joined the American Negro Theater (ANT) and changed her name from Ruby Anne Wallace to Ruby Dee. After college, although she worked as a French and Spanish translator, she knew her true calling was the theater.
Dee’s first break in theater would be in Jeb. As the roles continued to come, she broke all the rules set for African-American actresses and actors, which opened the door for others, such as Maya Angelou and Danny Glover. Dee will be remembered as a legend for many things, including her fight for civil rights alongside Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Dee and her husband, Ossie Davis, even marched with MLK on Washington in 1963. Dee was heavily involved with such organizations as the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1999, she and Davis were arrested for protesting the shooting of African immigrant Amadou Diallo after he was shot by NYPD police.
Very little is known about Dee’s first marriage; only that she was married to a blues singer, Frankie Dee Brown. The marriage lasted only for three years. In 1946, she would meet the love of her life, Davis, who she met while performing in the play, Jeb. Three years later, they would marry in New Jersey. Their marriage would last 56 years until Davis passed away in 2005, showing the world that marriages can last in the acting industry. They performed in many theater productions as well as a short-lived TV show in 1980 titled Ossie and Ruby!
Dee spent roughly 60 years in the business earning awards and nominations, such as the Frederick Douglass Award, an Oscar nomination for her performance in American Gangster, an Obie in 1971, a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, and an NAACP Image Award, just to name a few. She was the first black woman to play a lead role in the American Shakespeare Festival. She played in such films as The Jackie Robinson Story, A Raisin in the Sun, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, and American Gangster. She also had numerous roles in TV, including on The Guiding Light. With each play and film, she revolutionized the way African-Americans were viewed and cast in films and theater work. For that alone,Ruby Dee will always be a legend. During the Tony Awards, she was praised twice – first by Audra McDonald and then later by director Kenny Leon, which proves what a mark Dee made during her lifetime. Many tweets went out to Dee’s family in remembrance of the amazing woman, including messages from First Lady Michelle Obama, Samuel L. Jackson and Spike Lee.
By Heather Tillman