Ruby Dee was a performer, writer and activist who received numerous professional accolades as an actress, including an Emmy Award and an Oscar nomination. Along with her late husband, the actor and writer Ossie Davis, Dee was a larger-than-life figure whose impact extended beyond the arts to include contributions to the civil rights movement and other social and political issues.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, she grew up in the Harlem section of New York City and graduated from Hunter College with degrees in French and Spanish. By that time she had already appeared on Broadway and in productions by the American Negro Theater.
She met Ossie Davis in 1946, when they both had lead roles in the Broadway play Jeb, about a black soldier who loses a leg in World War II and despite his sacrifice is subjected to racism when he returns home. They married in 1948, a union last lasted until his death in 2005. She had previously been married for four years to Freddie Dee Brown, whose name she continued to use professionally.
Her other noteworthy stage work included Lorraine Hansberry's landmark play A Raisin in the Sun, which premiered on Broadway in 1959, ran for 530 performances and spawned a 1961 film adaptation. In 1970 she drew glowing notices as the female lead in the off Broadway of Athol Fugard's Boesman and Lena.
She made her motion picture and television debuts in 1946 with the feature film That Man of Mine and the made-for-TV movie The First Year, respectively.
Over the next six decades she had roles in dozens of movies, including The Jackie Robinson Story, No Way Out, Edge of the City, St. Louis Blues, Gone Are the Days!, The Incident, Buck and the Preacher, Do the Right Thing, Love at Large, Jungle Fever, Baby Geniuses and American Gangster, for which she earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.
Television brought her numerous opportunities over the years, and she was seen in dozens of series, miniseries, telefilms, specials, talk shows and more. They included The Nurses, Guiding Light, Peyton Place, The Fugitive, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, It's Good to Be Alive, Police Woman, Roots: The Next Generations, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Go Tell It on the Mountain, The Atlanta Child Murders, Lincoln, The Stand, China Beach, Decoration Day, Street Gear, Evening Shade, Little Bill, Touched by an Angel, CSI and many others.
For her television work, Dee received six Primetime Emmy nominations and in 1990 she won the award for outstanding supporting actress in a miniseries or special for the telefilm Decoration Day, starring James Garner. She also received three Daytime Emmy nominations.
Her many other professional accolades included Grammy, Obie, Drama Desk, Screen Actors Guild, and Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Awards. She also received the National Medal of Arts and a salute by the Kennedy Center Honors.
Apart from their artistic endeavors, Dee and Davis spoke out on many causes. In the ’50s they opposed the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and criticized the investigations of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The also advocated on behalf of actor-singer-activist Paul Robeson when his passport was revoked by the U.S. government and they demonstrated against the war in Vietnam. In addition, they were friends and supporters of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. After Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, Davis delivered his eulogy. They raised money for the Black Panthers.
Dee died June 11, 2014, at her home in New Rochelle, New York. She was 91.