Appreciating The Majesty Of Ruby Dee (1924 - 2014)

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Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis-- two of a kind

Legendary actress Ruby Dee – longtime veteran of film, stage, radio, and television – passed away at her New Rochelle, New York home Wednesday night surrounded by friends and family members. She was 91 years old.

Ms. Dee was born as Ruby Dee Wallace on October 27th, 1924 in Cleveland, OH. She grew up in Harlem. She aspired to be an actress; and acted for the first time in 1940.

Ms. Dee must be recognized for her pioneering role as an actress. She was the first African-American actress to appear on network soap operas. She had a major role in ABC’s 1960s nighttime soap, “Peyton Place.” She was also the first actress of color to appear in a major role within the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, CT in 1965.

Ms. Dee was a member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated.

Ms. Dee’s long, distinguished, and very successful career spanned six decades; and included many prestigious awards. She earned a Grammy award, an Emmy award, the NAACP Image award, two Screen Actors Guild awards, the National Medal of Art, National Civil Rights Museum's Lifetime Achievement Award, and a Kennedy Center Honors award just to name a few. She was nominated for many other awards. Remarkably – but not surprisingly – Ms. Dee received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the 2007 film “American Gangster,” – which featured Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.  She was 83 years old at the time.

Notably, Ms. Dee was more than just an acclaimed and beloved actress. She was also an activist, journalist, playwright, poet, and screenwriter. Individually – and collectively with her late husband, legendary actor Ossie Davis – she was a steadfast activist who championed the cause of civil rights throughout her life. She was especially passionate about achieving social justice and racial equality for African-Americans. Ms. Dee was an active participant in such organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). She served as mistress of ceremonies at MLK’s March on Washington in 1963. She also protested South African apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s.

Ruby and Ossie met each other in 1945 while she was auditioning for a role in the Broadway play “Jeb.” In 1948, the two got married on their day off from another Broadway play. Ruby and Ossie went on to share billing in 11 different stage productions and five movies during their prestige-filled careers. During a 2006 interview, Ms. Dee stated: “We used the arts as part of our struggle. Ossie said he knew he had to conduct himself differently with skill and thought.”

In 1974, they produced and hosted their own radio show: "The Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Story Hour.” This show consistently dealt with a plethora of themes familiar to people of color. “The Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Story Hour” was sponsored by Kraft Foods – and carried by over 60 stations via the National Black Network. Ruby and Ossie were both inducted into to the NAACP Hall of Fame in 1989.

Ms. Dee worked with many entertainment titans during her career; from Sidney Poitier to Mia Farrow to Denzel Washington to Ossie Davis to Nat King Cole to James Earl Jones. Her civil rights activism led her to friendships with both Malcolm X and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Friends with Jackie Robinson and his wife Rachel, Ms. Dee portrayed Mrs. Robinson alongside Jackie Robinson (who played himself) in “The Jackie Robinson Story” in 1950.

Some of Ms. Dee’s most notable works include: No Way Out (1950), The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), Edge of the City (1957), Raisin in the Sun (1961), Purlie Victorious (1963), Buck and the Preacher (1972), Black Girl (directed by Mr. Davis) (1972), Do The Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), Stephen King’s The Stand (1994), Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005), and American Gangster (2007).

Ms. Dee was happily married to Mr. Davis for 56 years. Ossie Davis passed away in 2005. 

Ms. Dee is survived by three children: Nora, Hasna and Guy; and seven grandchildren.

Of Ms. Dee’s passing, The Reverend Al Sharpton commented: “Ruby Dee was a phenomenally rare artist and a jewel to our nation and community. I was privileged to work on several civil rights cases with her and her husband Ossie Davis. She was as committed to social justice as she was to the screen and stage. She will be greatly missed.”

Tony award-winning Director Kenny Leon shared: “We have lost another Tall Tree. What a life and an example of how to live it richly. When I mentioned her from the Tony Awards stage on Sunday, it was heartfelt. She and Ossie spent time with me during the staging of the Raisin revival ten years ago, and I will never forget her passion for the play; and her example as a true American theatre artist that inspired many of us to speak through our art. They don't get better than Ruby. Maya and Ruby leave us only days apart - those two women with four letter names instructed us on how to live. She will be missed but never forgotten as she lives on in many of us.”

Ruby Dee once said: “The kind of beauty I want most is the hard-to-get kind that comes from within – strength, courage, dignity.” Mission accomplished.

Rest in peace, Ms. Dee. You will be sorely missed.

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