Ruby Dee – Unsung Heroine

ruby dee

Miss Ruby Dee who passed away at 91, was a great person both on-stage, onscreen and in life. The actress who delighted audiences for decades through various mediums like the movies, TV shows and Broadway plays will always be remembered for being one of the big surprises in small packages. Read on to find out what made Ruby Dee the unsung heroine in real life.

Born in Cleveland as Ruby Ann Wallace, the 5’2” actress considered herself a native New Yorker as she was raised in Harlem. Dee recalled spending her childhood playing the violin and piano, writing poetry and reading literature. The parents who fostered the love for performing arts in their daughter insisted that Ruby absorb the cultural outburst at that time, many of who will recognize the revolution as the “Harlem Renaissance.” Graduating from Hunter’s College, New York in 1944, Ruby Dee pursued degrees in French and Spanish. The actress settled down in New Rochelle, her home where she has passed away this year, but remains as one of the legends that called New York home.

Though the late Ossie Davis was the man in the life until she passed away, Dee took on the surname of her first husband, Frankie Dee Brown. A blues singer by profession, Dee Brown divorced Ruby in 1944 ending the short marriage that lasted only three years. Dee it seems, wanted to be an actress from her time in college where she performed in small productions like South Pacific. Two years later Ruby landed the female lead role in Jeb, on Broadway. The play which centred around racial intolerance was where she met Ossie Davis, who played the male lead opposite her. The couple married in 1948 and spent the rest of their lives together until Davis passed in 2005.

Years later in a joint book released about their 50 years of marriage called With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together, Dee and Davis discussed an open marriage. The couple revealed that in 1960 with conflicting schedules, they considered opening their marriage to other partners. The couple later decided that the arrangement would not work, citing that the possibility simply did not work for the couple who did not seem to have eyes for anyone else.

If 1946 saw Ruby Dee find love in Davis, a Broadway début in Jeb, the big screen introduced Ruby Dee to a wider audience through her début in Love in Syncopation. Years later in 1965 the famous American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, debuted the first coloured actress, Ms Dee to play two leading roles simultaneously. The petite yet confident actress wowed audiences with her portrayal as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and Cordelia in King Lear.

While Ruby Dee did play roles that centred around racial discrimination it is her riveting performance in the Broadway classic A Raisin in the Sun, in 1965 that earned her new-found respect. Holding her own against thespians like Sidney Poitier, Louis Gossett and Ivan Dixon, Ms Dee managed to land the role of Ruth Younger, the wife of Walter Lee Younger played excellently by Poitier, when the play was adapted for the silver screen in 1961.

In 1968 when night-time soap operas on TV captivated audiences all over America, Ms Ruby Dee became the first colored actress to land a role in the most popular show during 1964-1969, Peyton Place. Playing Alma Miles, a neurosurgeon’s wife, the American adaptation of the British TV series, Coronation Street, Ruby shared screen space along with Mia Farrow, Mariette Hartley and Lana Wood.

A tireless campaigner for civil rights, Dee and Davis marched along with popular figures like Harry Belafonte and Dr. Martin Luther King. Ruby Dee remained great friends with Malcom X, even giving the eulogy at his funeral. Ruby Dee, the unsung heroine who dreamt of equality founded the Association of Artists for Freedom in 1963 with Davis to be the voice of victims of racial abuse in the Southern states of America.

When four little girls lost their lives in the 1963 Birmingham Church Bombing, Dee and Davis sought help from the only people they knew, fellow actors. Dee and Davis were goodwill ambassadors to Nigeria in the 1960s and in 1989 the couple was inducted into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Hall of Fame. Dee also was a member of civil right organizations like

Dee was not only passionate about civil rights, she raised her voice in support of any wrong doing. Whether it was the Vietnam War or defending Julius and Ethel Rosenberg against false charges of conspiracy and espionage, Ruby was on the front lines battling it out with them. She was arrested in 1999 along with Davis when she protested the death of Amadou Diallou, a West African immigrant by the police officers of the NYPD.

A brave survivor of breast cancer for over five decades, Dee knew she would no go down without a fight when she underwent a lumpectomy. She assured the doctors that she would be fine putting and vowed not to surrender to oblivion. The years of literature and poetry turned out to fashion Dee’s career as an author. With two books for kids, Two Ways to Count to Ten, and  Tower to Heaven, she performed her collection of poems and short stories, My One Good Nerve, as a one-woman show.

The world beheld the second-oldest actress to be nominated for an Oscar, as Dee wowed audiences as Diesel Washington’s mother Mama Lucas in American Gangster. The actress, whose only Oscar nomination came late in her career, had already been nominated for the Emmys and won a Grammy for the best Spoken Album with Ossie Davis and President Jimmy Carter in 2007.

Ruby Dee, who took pleasure in the simplicity of life loved poetry. The actress encouraged children to read, recite and compose poetry. Often a judge at poetry competitions in the Bronx, NY  the actress wished the best for little ones who recited their work nurturing and paving the way for future wordsmiths. Ruby Dee, an unsung heroine for civil rights accomplished a lot in the 91 years she spent on earth, but it is the compassion and love she exuded that will forever remain etched in the hearts of all who knew her.

By Rathan Paul Harshavardan

Los Angeles Times
The New Yorker Blog
News One

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