Ruby Dee

Ruby Dee (October 27, 1922 – June 11, 2014) was an American actress, poet, playwright, screenwriter, journalist, and civil rights activist.[1] She originated the role of "Ruth Younger" in the stage and film versions of A Raisin in the Sun (1961). Her other notable film roles include The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) and Do the Right Thing (1989).

Ruby Dee
Ruby Dee in 1972
Ruby Ann Wallace

(1922-10-27)October 27, 1922
DiedJune 11, 2014(2014-06-11) (aged 91)
New Rochelle, New York, U.S.
Resting placeFerncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York, U.S.
Alma materHunter College (1945)
  • Actress
  • poet
  • playwright
  • screenwriter
  • journalist
  • activist
Years active1940–2013
Spouse(s)Frankie Dee Brown
(m. c.1941; div. 1945)
Ossie Davis
(m. 1948; died 2005)
Children3, including Guy Davis

Dee was married to Ossie Davis, with whom she frequently performed until his death in 2005.[2]

For her performance as Mahalee Lucas in American Gangster (2007), Dee was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Female Actor in a Supporting Role. Dee was a Grammy, Emmy, Obie and Drama Desk winner. She was also a National Medal of Arts, Kennedy Center Honors and Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award recipient.

Early life

Dee was born on October 27, 1922, in Cleveland, Ohio,[3] the daughter of Gladys (née Hightower) and Marshall Edward Nathaniel Wallace, a cook, waiter and porter.[4] After her mother left the family, Dee's father remarried, to Emma Amelia Benson, a schoolteacher.[5][6][7][8]

Dee was raised in Harlem, New York.[9] Prior to attending Hunter College High School, she studied at Public Schools 119 and 136.[10] Then, she went on to graduate from Hunter College with a degree in Romance languages in 1945.[11] She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta.[12]


Dee joined the American Negro Theater as an apprentice, working with Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Hilda Simms.[11] She made several appearances on Broadway, such as her first role in ANT's 1946 production of Anna Lucasta.[13] 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.[9] In 1965, Dee performed in lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival as Kate 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.[11]

Photo of a scene from the play A Raisin in the Sun. From left: Dee, (Ruth Younger); Claudia McNeil, (Lena Younger); Glynn Turman, (Travis Younger); Sidney Poitier, (Walter Younger) and John Fiedler, (Karl Lindner).

During the 1960s, Dee appeared in Gone Are the Days! and The Incident. In 1969, Dee appeared in 20 episodes of Peyton Place.[9] She appeared as Cora Sanders, a Marxist college professor, in the Season 1/Episode 14 of Police Woman, entitled "Target Black" which aired on Friday night, January 3, 1975. The character of Cora Sanders was obviously, but loosely, influenced by the real-life Angela Y. Davis. She appeared in one episode of The Golden Girls' sixth season. She played Queen Haley in Roots: The Next Generations, a 1979 miniseries.[9]

Dee was nominated for eight Emmy Awards, winning once for her role in the 1990 TV film Decoration Day.[14] 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.[9]

In 1995, she and Davis were awarded the National Medal of Arts.[15] They were also recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004. In 2003, she narrated a series of WPA & slave narratives in the HBO film Unchained Memories.[16] In 2007 the winner of the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album was shared by Dee and Ossie Davis for With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together, and former President Jimmy Carter.[11][17]

Dee by Carl Van Vechten, September 25, 1962

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 is currently the second oldest nominee for Best Supporting Actress, behind Gloria Stuart who was 87 when nominated for her role in American Gangster. This was Dee's only Oscar nomination.[18]

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.[19]

Dee's last role in a theatrically released film was in the Eddie Murphy comedy A Thousand Words, in which she portrayed the mother of Murphy's protagonist. Perhaps, her penultimate film role is in 1982, which premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival[20] and was released on home video on March 1, 2016.[21] It is unknown whether her final role will ever be seen, as King Dog was in production at the time of her death,[22] and no release date has ever been announced.

Personal life and activism

Ruby Wallace married blues singer Frankie Dee Brown in 1941, and began using his middle name as her stage name. The couple divorced in 1945.[11] Three years later she married actor Ossie Davis, whom she met while costarring in Robert Ardrey's 1946 Broadway play Jeb.[23] 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 views).[24][25] Together they had three children: son, blues musician Guy Davis, and two daughters, Nora Day and Hasna Muhammad. Dee was a breast cancer survivor of more than three decades.[26]

Dee speaking in 2006

In 1979, the Supersisters trading card set was produced and distributed; one of the cards featured Dee's name and picture.[27]

Dee and Davis were well-known civil rights activists in the Civil Rights Movement.[28] 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. She was also as an active member of the Harlem Writers Guild for over 40 years. In 1963, Dee emceed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.[29] 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.[30] In 1970, she won the Frederick Douglass Award from the New York Urban League.[9]

Dee (right) with activist and opera star Stacey Robinson in 1998.

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.[31]

In early 2003, The Nation published "Not in Our 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. Dee, a long-time resident of New Rochelle, New York, was inducted into the New Rochelle Walk of Fame which honors the most notable residents from throughout the community's 325-year history. She was also inducted into the Westchester County Women's Hall of Fame on March 30, 2007, joining such other honorees as Hillary Clinton and Nita Lowey.[32] In 2009, she received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Princeton University.[17][33]


Dee died on June 11, 2014, at her home in New Rochelle, New York, from natural causes at the age of 91.[34] In a statement, 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, 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."[9]

"She very peacefully surrendered", said her daughter Nora Day. "We hugged her, we kissed her, we gave her our permission to go. She opened her eyes. She looked at us. She closed her eyes, and she set sail." Following her death, the marquee on the Apollo Theater read: "A TRUE APOLLO LEGEND RUBY DEE 1922–2014".[35]

Dee was cremated, and her ashes are held in the same urn as that of Davis, with the inscription "In this thing together".[11] A public memorial celebration honoring Dee was held on September 20, 2014, at the Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan.[36] Their shared urn was buried at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.



Ruby Dee and Joel Fluellen (center) in
The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
Year Title Role Note
1946That Man of Mine [9]JoanFirst film
1947Easy to Get [37]Drugstore girlU.S. Army venereal disease training film
The Fight Never Ends [38]Jane
1948What a Guy[38]
1950The Jackie Robinson StoryRae Robinson
No Way OutConnie BrooksUncredited
1951The Tall TargetRachel
1954Go, Man, Go!Irma Jackson
1956Mrs. AshlowUncredited
1957Edge of the CityLucy Tyler
1958St. Louis BluesElizabeth
Virgin IslandRuth
1959Take a Giant StepChristine
1961A Raisin in the SunRuth Younger
1963The BalconyThief
Gone Are the Days!Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins
1967The IncidentJoan Robinson
1968Up Tight!Laurie
1970King: A Filmed Record... Montgomery to MemphisDocumentary
1972Buck and the PreacherRuth
Black GirlNetta's Mother
1976Countdown at Kusini [39]Leah Matanzima
1982Cat PeopleFemale
1989Do the Right ThingMother Sister
1990Love at LargeCorrine Dart
1991Jungle FeverLucinda Purify
1993Color AdjustmentNarratorDocumentary
Cop and a HalfRachel
1994The StandMother Abagail Freemantle
1995Just CauseEvangeline
1996Mr. & Mrs. Loving [40]Sophia
1997A Simple WishHortense
1998A Time to Dance: The Life and Work of Norma CannerNarratorDocumentary[39]
1999Baby Geniuses[39]Margo
2003Beah: A Black Woman SpeaksHerselfDocumentary
2006No. 2Nanna Maria
The Way Back Home [39]Maude
2007All About Us [39]Ms. Ella
American GangsterMama Lucas
2009The Perfect Age of Rock 'n' Roll [39]Miss Candy
2010Dream StreetLaura[41]
2011Video GirlValerie[42]
Politics of Love [39]Grandma 'Estelle' Roseanne Gupta
Red & Blue Marbles [39]Professor June Wright
2012Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey With Mumia Abu-Jamal[43]
A Thousand WordsAnnie McCall[39]
2013Betty & CorettaNarrator[44]
1982Rose Brown

Short subjects:

  • Lorraine Hansberry: The Black Experience in the Creation of Drama (1975)[45]
  • The Torture of Mothers (1980)[38]
  • Tuesday Morning Ride (1995)[46]
  • The Unfinished Journey (1999) (narrator)[47]
  • The New Neighbors (2009) (narrator)[48]


  • The Bitter Cup (1961)[40]
  • Seven Times Monday (1962)[40]
  • The Fugitive (1963)[40]
  • The Great Adventure (1963) [40]
  • Of Courtship and Marriage (1964)[40]
  • Guiding Light (cast member in 1967)[40]
  • Peyton Place (cast member from 1968 to 1969)
  • Deadlock (1969)[40]
  • The Sheriff (1971)[40]
  • It's Good to Be Alive (1974)[40]
  • Police Woman Season 1 / Episode 14 "Target Black" (1975)
  • Roots: The Next Generations (1979) (miniseries)[40]
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1979)[40]
  • All God's Children (1980)[40]
  • With Ossie and Ruby! (1980–1982)[40]
  • Long Day's Journey into Night (1982)
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain (1984)
  • The Atlanta Child Murders (1985) (miniseries)
  • Windmills of the Gods (1988)[40]
  • Gore Vidal's Lincoln (1988)[40]
  • The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson (1990)[40]
  • Decoration Day (1990)[40]
  • Golden Girls (1990)[40]
  • Jazztime Tale (1991) (voice)[38]
  • Middle Ages (1992–1993)
  • The Ernest Green Story (1993)
  • The Stand (1994) (miniseries)
  • Whitewash (1994) (voice)[40]
  • Mr. and Mrs. Loving (1996)[40]
  • Captive Heart: The James Mink Story (1996)
  • The Wall (1998)[40]
  • Little Bill (1999 – 2004) (voice)
  • Passing Glory (1999)
  • Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years (1999)
  • A Storm in Summer (2000)[40]
  • Finding Buck McHenry (2000)[40]
  • The Feast of All Saints (2001) (miniseries)
  • Taking Back Our Town (2001)[40]
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005)
  • Meet Mary Pleasant (2008)
  • America (2009)


  • On Strivers Row (1940)[49]
  • Natural Man (1941)[49]
  • Starlight (1942)[49]
  • Three's a Family (1943)[49]
  • South Pacific (1943)[49]
  • Walk Hard (1944)[49]
  • Jeb (1946)[49]
  • Anna Lucasta (1946) (replacement for Hilda Simms)[49]
  • Arsenic and Old Lace (1946)[49]
  • John Loves Mary (1946)
  • A Long Way From Home (1948)[49]
  • The Smile of the World (1949)[49]
  • The World of Sholom Aleichem (1953)[49]
  • A Raisin in the Sun (1959)
  • Purlie Victorious (1961)[49]
  • King Lear (1965)[49]
  • The Taming of the Shrew (1965)[49]
  • The Birds (1966)[49]
  • Oresteia (1966)[49]
  • Boesman and Lena (1970)[49]
  • The Imaginary Invalid (1971)[49]
  • The Wedding Band (1972)[49]
  • Hamlet (1975)[49]
  • Bus Stop (1979)
  • Twin-Bit Gardens (1979)[49]
  • Zora is My Name! (1983)[49]
  • Checkmates (1988)[49]
  • The Glass Menagerie (1989)[49]
  • The Disappearance (1993)[49]
  • Flying West (1994)[49]
  • Two Hahs-Hahs and a Homeboy (1995)[49]
  • My One Good Nerve: A Visit with Ruby Dee (1996)[49]
  • A Last Dance for Sybil (2002)[49]
  • Saint Lucy's Eyes (2003)[49]


  • The Original Read-In for Peace in Vietnam (Folkways Records, 1967)[50]
  • The Poetry of Langston Hughes (with Ossie Davis. Caedmon Records, no date, TC 1272)[51]
  • Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (with George Grizzard. Caedmon Records, 1970, TC 1324)
  • Tough Poems For Tough People (with Ossie Davis and Henry Braun. Caedmon Records, 1972, TC 1396)
  • To Make A Poet Black: The best poems of Countee Cullen (with Ossie Davis. Caedmon Records, 1971, TC 1400
  • To Be A Slave (with Ossie Davis. Caedmon Records, 1972, TC 2066)
  • The Lost Zoo, (Caedmon Records, 1978, TC 1539)
  • Why Mosquitoes Buzz In People's Ears and Other Tales with Ossie Davis. Caedmon Records, 1978, TC 1592)
  • What if I am a Woman?, Vol. 1: Black Women's Speeches (Folkways, 1977)[52]
  • What if I am a Woman?, Vol. 2: Black Women's Speeches (Folkways, 1977)[53]
  • Every Tone a Testimony (Smithsonian Folkways, 2001)[54]
  • American Short Stories, Vol 2: Various Artists(eav Lexington, no date, LE 7703)
  • American Short Stories, Vol 3: Various Artists (eav Lexington, no date, LE 7704)
  • I've got a name, Various Artists (Holt's Impact, 1968, CSM 662)
  • At your own risk, Various Artists (Holt's Impact, 1968, CSM 663)
  • Conflict, Various Artists (Holt's Impact, 1969, CSM 816)
  • Sight lines, Various Artists (Holt's Impact, 1970, SBN 03-071525-3)
  • Roses & Revolutions, Various Artist (D.S.T. Telecommunications, Inc., Production, 1975)
  • New Dimensions in Music (with John Cullum. CBS Records, 1976, P 13161)

Awards and nominations


  • 1961: National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress – A Raisin in the Sun[55]
  • 1971: Drama Desk Award Outstanding Performance – Boesman and Lena[56]
  • 1971: Obie Award for Best Performance by an Actress – Boesman and Lena[23][56]
  • 1973: Drama Desk Award Outstanding Performance – Wedding Band[23]
  • 1988: Induction into the American Theater Hall of Fame[57]
  • 1991: Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie – Decoration Day[11]
  • 1991: Women in Film Crystal Award[58]
  • 1995: National Medal of Arts[56]
  • 2000: Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award[59]
  • 2003: Women of Vision Award - Women in Film & Video-DC [60]
  • 2007: Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album – With Ossie And Ruby: In This Life Together (tied with Jimmy Carter)[11][61]
  • 2008: African–American Film Critics Best Supporting Actress – American Gangster[62]
  • 2008: Screen Actors Guild Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role – American Gangster[29][63]
  • 2008: The Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal Award[64]
  • 2008: She was awarded the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP.[65]


  • 1964: Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role – The Doctors and the Nurses: Express Stop from Lenox Avenue[40]
  • 1979: Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Special – Roots: The Next Generations[56]
  • 1988: Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Special – Lincoln[56]
  • 1990: Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series – China Beach: Skylark[56]
  • 1993: Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series – Evening Shade: They Can't Take That Away from Me[56]
  • 1995: Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program – Whitewash[40]
  • 2001: Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program – Little Bill[66]
  • 2002: Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Actress – Saint Lucy's Eyes[56]
  • 2003: Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program – Little Bill[67]
  • 2008: Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting RoleAmerican Gangster[56]
  • 2008: Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture – American Gangster[63]
  • 2008: Screen Actors Guild Outstanding Cast in a Motion Picture – American Gangster[11]
  • 2009: Screen Actors Guild Outstanding Performance by a Female Actress in a Television Movie or Miniseries – America[68]
  • 2010: Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Event – America[69]


  • Davis, Ossie; Ruby Dee (1984). Why Mosquitos Buzz in People's Ears (Audio Cassette). Caedmon. ISBN 978-0-694-51187-7.
  • Dee, Ruby (1986). My One Good Nerve: Rhythms, Rhymes, Reasons. Third World Press. ISBN 0-88378-114-X.
  • Davis, Ossie; Dee, Ruby (1998). With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together. William Morrow. ISBN 978-0-688-15396-0.

See also

  • List of oldest and youngest Academy Award winners and nominees


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