Ruby Dee

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Ruby Dee
Ruby Dee - 1972.jpg
Ruby Dee in 1972
BornRuby Ann Wallace
October 27 1922(1922-10-27)
Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.
DiedJune 11 2014 (aged 91)
New Rochelle, New York, U.S.
Cause of deathNatural causes
Resting placeCremation
OccupationActress, poet, playwright, screenwriter, journalist, activist
Spouse(s)Frankie Dee Brown (approx 1941–1945; divorced)
Ossie Davis (1948–2005; his death)

Ruby Dee (née Wallace; October 27, 1922 – June 11, 2014) was an American actress, poet, playwright, screenwriter, journalist and activist. She was married to actor Ossie Davis until his death in 2005.

Dee began her acting career on the Broadway stage before appearing in films and television. Roles for which she is best known include A Raisin in the Sun (1961), Do the Right Thing (1989), and American Gangster (2007) for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She was the recipient of Grammy, Emmy, Obie, Drama Desk, Screen Actors Guild Award, and Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Awards as well as the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honors.

Dee and her husband, Ossie Davis, stood in the forefront of changing the experience of black actors in the entertainment industry playing leading roles rather than being relegated to those of maids and butlers. They were also activists for civil rights, personal friends of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Despite experimenting with an open marriage for a time, they showed deep love and commitment to each other and were an outstanding example of a successful black couple in America.


Dee by Carl Van Vechten

Born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio on October 27, 1922, she was the third child born to Gladys Hightower and Marshall Edward Nathaniel Wallace. Her parents were two teenagers who married when Gladys became pregnant with the first child. In three years Gladys left Ruby's father with three children. He remarried, to Emma Amelia Benson, a schoolteacher who had studied at Atlanta University under W.E.B. Du Bois.[1]

The family moved to New York City, and the children were raised in Harlem.[2] She attended Hunter College High School and went on to graduate from Hunter College with a degree in romance languages in 1945.[3]

Ruby married blues singer Frankie Dee Brown in 1941, and began using his middle name as her stage name.[4] The couple divorced in 1945.[3]

Three years later she married actor Ossie Davis, who she met while costarring in the 1946 Broadway play Jeb.[5] 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 minds).[6] Together they had three children: son, blues musician Guy Davis, and two daughters, Nora Day and Hasna Muhammad.

Did you know?
Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis had an open marriage, although they found that they preferred monogamy

She was a breast cancer survivor of more than three decades.[7]

Dee died on June 11, 2014, at her home in New Rochelle, New York, from natural causes at the age of 91.[8] Her wish was to be cremated, and her ashes held in the same urn as that of Davis, with the inscription "In this thing together."[3] A public memorial service was held Saturday, September 20, 2014 at the Riverside Church in New York City.[9]

Acting Career

Ruby Dee & Joel Fluellen (center) in The Jackie Robinson Story

Dee joined the American Negro Theater as an apprentice, working with Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Hilda Simms.[3] 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.[2] In 1965, Dee performed in lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival as Katherina 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.[3]

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.[2] She appeared in the role of Cora Sanders, a Marxist college professor loosely influenced by the real-life Angela Y. Davis, in the Season 1/Episode 14 of Police Woman in 1975. The. She appeared in one episode of The Golden Girls' sixth season. She played Queen Haley in Roots: The Next Generations, a 1979 miniseries.[2]

Dee was nominated for eight Emmy Awards, winning once for her role in the 1990 TV film Decoration Day.[10] 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.[2]

In 1995, Dee and Davis were awarded the National Medal of Arts.[11] They were also recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004. In 2003, she and Davis narrated a series of Works Progress Administration (WPA) slave narratives in the HBO film Unchained Memories.[12] In 2007 the winner of the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album was shared by Dee and Davis, for With Ossie And Ruby: In This Life Together, and former President Jimmy Carter.[3][13]

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 was 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.[14]

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.[15]


Dee speaking in 2006

Dee and Davis were well-known civil rights activists. 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. 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.[16] In 1970, she won the Frederick Douglass Award from the New York Urban League.[2]

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.[17]

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. In 2009 she received an Honorary Degree from Princeton University.[13]


Ruby Dee and her husband Ossie Davis were known as the "'First Couple' of black America" and together they changed the way the entertainment industry viewed black actors forever.[18] When she began her career, black stage actresses were cast as maids but Ruby took on Shakespearean roles, such as Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew (American Shakespeare Festival, 1965), Cordelia in King Lear (American Shakespeare Festival, 1965), and Gertrude in Hamlet (New York Shakespeare Festival, 1975).[19]

In a statement on hearing of her death, 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."[2]

Following her death the marquee on the Apollo theater read “A TRUE APOLLO LEGEND RUBY DEE 1922-2014.”[8]

Awards and nominations


  • 1961: National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress – A Raisin in the Sun[20]
  • 1971: Drama Desk Award Outstanding Performance – Boesman and Lena
  • 1971: Obie Award for Best Performance by an Actress – Boesman and Lena[5]
  • 1973: Drama Desk Award Outstanding Performance – Wedding Band[5]
  • 1988: Induction into the American Theater Hall of Fame[21]
  • 1991: Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie – Decoration Day[3]
  • 1991: Women in Film Crystal Award[22]
  • 1995: National Medal of Arts
  • 2000: Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award[23]
  • 2007: Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album – With Ossie And Ruby: In This Life Together[3]
  • 2008: African–American Film Critics Best Supporting Actress – American Gangster[24]
  • 2008: Screen Actors Guild Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role – American Gangster[25]
  • 2008: The Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal Award[26]
  • 2008: She was awarded the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP.[27]


  • 1964: Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role – The Doctors and the Nurses: Express Stop from Lenox Avenue
  • 1979: Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Special – Roots: The Next Generations
  • 1988: Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Special – Lincoln
  • 1990: Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series – China Beach: Skylark
  • 1993: Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series – Evening Shade: They Can't Take That Away from Me
  • 1995: Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program – Whitewash
  • 2001: Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program – Little Bill[28]
  • 2002: Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Actress – Saint Lucy's Eyes
  • 2003: Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program – Little Bill[29]
  • 2008: Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role – American Gangster
  • 2008: Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture – American Gangster[25]
  • 2008: Screen Actors Guild Outstanding Cast in a Motion Picture – American Gangster[3]
  • 2009: Screen Actors Guild Outstanding Performance by a Female Actress in a Television Movie or Miniseries – America[30]
  • 2010: Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Event – America[31]

Major Works



  • That Man of Mine (1946)
  • The Fight Never Ends (1947)
  • What a Guy (1948)
  • The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
  • No Way Out (1950)
  • The Tall Target (1951)
  • Go, Man, Go! (1954)
  • Edge of the City (1957)
  • Virgin Island (1958)
  • St. Louis Blues (1958)
  • Take a Giant Step (1959)
  • A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
  • The Balcony (1963)
  • Gone Are the Days! (1963)
  • The Incident (1967)
  • Up Tight! (1968)
  • King: A Filmed Record... Montgomery to Memphis (1970) (documentary)
  • Buck and the Preacher (1972)
  • Black Girl (1972)
  • Wattstax (1973)
  • Countdown at Kusini (1976)
  • Cat People (1982)
  • Do the Right Thing (1989)
  • Love at Large (1990)
  • Jungle Fever (1991)
  • Color Adjustment (1992) (documentary) (narrator)
  • Cop and a Half (1993)
  • The Stand (1994)
  • A Simple Wish (1997)
  • Just Cause (1995)
  • Mr. & Mrs. Loving (1996)
  • A Time to Dance: The Life and Work of Norma Canner (1998) (documentary) (narrator)
  • Baby Geniuses (1999)
  • Beah: A Black Woman Speaks (2003) (documentary)
  • No. 2 (2006)
  • The Way Back Home (2006)
  • All About Us (2007)
  • American Gangster (2007)
  • Steam (2007)
  • The Perfect Age of Rock 'n' Roll (2009)
  • Dream Street (2010)
  • Video Girl (2011)
  • Politics of Love (2011)
  • Red & Blue Marbles (2011)
  • Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey With Mumia Abu-Jamal (2012)
  • A Thousand Words (2012)
  • Betty and Coretta (2013)

Short subjects:

  • Lorraine Hansberry: The Black Experience in the Creation of Drama (1975)
  • The Torture of Mothers (1980)
  • Tuesday Morning Ride (1995)
  • The Unfinished Journey (1999) (narrator)
  • The New Neighbors (2009) (narrator


  • The Bitter Cup (1961)
  • Seven Times Monday (1962)
  • The Fugitive (1963)
  • Of Courtship and Marriage (1964)
  • Guiding Light (cast member in 1967)
  • Peyton Place (cast member from 1968–1969)
  • Deadlock (1969)
  • The Sheriff (1971)
  • It's Good to Be Alive (1974)
  • Police Woman Season 1 / Episode 14 "Target Black" (1975)
  • Roots: The Next Generations (1979) (miniseries)
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1979)
  • All God's Children (1980)
  • With Ossie and Ruby! (1980–1982)
  • Long Day's Journey into Night (1982)
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain (1985)
  • The Atlanta Child Murders (1985) (miniseries)
  • Windmills of the Gods (1988)
  • Gore Vidal's Lincoln (1988)
  • The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson (1990)
  • Decoration Day (1990)
  • Golden Girls (1990)
  • Jazztime Tale (1991) (voice)
  • Middle Ages (1992–1993)
  • The Ernest Green Story (1993)
  • The Stand (1994) (miniseries)
  • Whitewash (1994) (voice)
  • Mr. and Mrs. Loving (1996)
  • Captive Heart: The James Mink Story (1996)
  • The Wall (1998)
  • Little Bill (1999 – on hiatus) (voice)
  • Passing Glory (1999)
  • Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years (1999)
  • A Storm in Summer (2000)
  • Finding Buck McHenry (2000)
  • The Feast of All Saints (2001) (miniseries)
  • Taking Back Our Town (2001)
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005)
  • Meet Mary Pleasant (2008)
  • America (2009)


  • On Strivers Row (1940)
  • Natural Man (1941)
  • Starlight (1942)
  • Three's a Family (1943)
  • South Pacific (1943)
  • Walk Hard (1944)
  • Jeb (1946)
  • Anna Lucasta (1946) (replacement for Hilda Simms)
  • Arsenic and Old Lace (1946)
  • John Loves Mary (1946)
  • A Long Way From Home (1948)
  • The Smile of the World (1949)
  • The World of Sholom Aleichem (1953)
  • A Raisin in the Sun (1959)
  • Purlie Victorious (1961)
  • King Lear (1965)
  • The Taming of the Shrew (1965)
  • The Birds (1966)
  • Oresteia (1966)
  • Boesman and Lena (1970)
  • The Imaginary Invalid (1971)
  • The Wedding Band (1972)
  • Hamlet (1975)
  • Bus Stop (1979)
  • Twin-Bit Gardens (1979)
  • Zora is My Name! (1983)
  • Checkmates (1988)
  • The Glass Menagerie (1989)
  • The Disappearance (1993)
  • Flying West (1994)
  • Two Hahs-Hahs and a Homeboy (1995)
  • My One Good Nerve: A Visit with Ruby Dee (1996)
  • A Last Dance for Sybil (2002)
  • Saint Lucy's Eyes (2003)


  • The Original Read-In for Peace in Vietnam (Folkways Records, 1967)
  • The Poetry of Langston Hughes (with Ossie Davis. Caedmon Records, no date, TC 1272)
  • What if I am a Woman?, Vol. 1: Black Women's Speeches (Folkways, 1977)
  • What if I am a Woman?, Vol. 2: Black Women's Speeches (Folkways, 1977)
  • Every Tone a Testimony (Smithsonian Folkways, 2001)


  1. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together (William Morrow, 1998, ISBN 978-0688153960).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Alan Duke and Todd Leopold, Ruby Dee was a formidable force on screen, in civil rights movement CNN, June 12, 2014. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Sarah Halzack, Ruby Dee, actress and civil rights activist, dies at 91 The Washington Post, October 27, 1922. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  4. Ronald Bergan, "Ruby Dee obituary", The Guardian, June 13, 2014. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Felicia R. Lee, At home with: Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee; Art and Politics: Keeping It All Fresh New York Times, April 20, 1995. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  6. About Ruby and Ossie’s Unique Marriage… Ebony, June 13, 2014. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  7. Lesley Messer and Mark Crudele, Oscar Nominee Ruby Dee Dead at 91 ABC News, June 12, 2014. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Denis Slattery, Joe Dziemianowicz, and Larry Mcshane, Ruby Dee dead at 91 New York Daily News, June 12, 2014. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  9. Memorial Honoring Ruby Dee Held At Riverside Church CBS, September 20, 2014. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  10. Ruby Dee Awards IMDb. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  11. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee National Endowment for the Arts. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  12. Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives IMDb. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Andrea Mandell, 6 great moments from Ruby Dee’s legendary career USA Today, June 12, 2014. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  14. Caryn Robbins, Broadway & Hollywood Legend Ruby Dee Dies at 91 Broadway World, June 12, 2014. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  15. Henry Epps, Great Achievements by African-American women vol I (Lulu, 2012, ISBN 978-1300138495).
  16. Ossie Davis, Eulogy for Malcolm X, February 27, 1965 American RadioWorks. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  17. Veteran actors Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis arrested at protest CNN, March 24, 1999. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  18. Douglas Feiden, Ruby Dee marks 90th birthday with new documentary about her illustrious life with late husband Ossie Davis, New York Daily News, November 13, 2012. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  19. Ruby Dee Stage Credits Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  20. R.I.P. Ruby Dee Deadline, June 12, 2014. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  21. Theater Hall of Fame Adds Nine New Names New York Times, November 22, 1988. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  22. Crystal Award Retrospective Women In Film. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  23. 37th Life Achievement Recipient, 2000 Screen Actors Guild Awards. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  24. Taylor Gordon, Iconic Actress and Activist Ruby Dee Dead at 91 Atlanta Black Star, June 12, 2014. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  25. 25.0 25.1 Roberta Hershenson, For Ruby Dee at 83, Acclaim and Performances The New York Times, February 3, 2008. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  26. The Associated Press, Daughter: Ruby Dee, Val-Kill medal winner, dead at 91 Poughkeepsie Journal, June 12, 2014. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  27. Spingarn Medal Recipients IMDb. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  28. Rick DeMott, Clifford Leads All Toon Nods At Daytime Emmy Animation World Network, March 16, 2001. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  29. 10 nominations for Nick in the daytime Emmy Indian television, March 22, 2003. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  30. Ruby Dee Television Credits Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  31. Image Awards (NAACP) 2010 IMDb. Retrieved July 13, 2022.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Appiah, Kwame Anthony, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. Arts and Letters: An A-to-Z Reference of Writers, Musicians, and Artists of the African American Experience. Running Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0762420421
  • Davis, Ossie. Life Lit by Some Large Vision: Selected Speeches and Writings. Washington Square Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0743289894
  • Davis, Ossie, and Ruby Dee. Why Mosquitos Buzz in People's Ears. Caedmon Audio Cassette, 1984. ISBN 0694511870
  • Davis, Ossie, and Ruby Dee. With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together. William Morrow, 1998. ISBN 978-0688153960
  • Dee, Ruby. My One Good Nerve: Rhythms, Rhymes, Reasons. Third World Press, 1987. ISBN 978-0883781142
  • Epps, Henry. Great Achievements by African-American women vol I. Lulu, 2012. ISBN 978-1300138495
  • Lyman, Darryl. Great African-American Women. Jonathan David Publishers, 2005. ISBN 978-0824604592
  • Stovall, TaRessa, and Calvin Stovall. A Love Supreme: Real Life Stories of Black (African-American) Love. Grand Central Publishing, 2000. ISBN 978-0446521710

External links

All links retrieved December 21, 2022.


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