Dee was born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio in 1922, to Gladys Hightower and Marshall Edward Nathaniel Wallace, a cook, waiter and porter. After her mother left the family, Dee’s father remarried, to Emma Amelia Benson, a schoolteacher. Dee was raised in Harlem, New York. She attended Hunter College High School and went on to graduate from Hunter College with a degree inromance languages in 1945. She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta.
Dee joined the American Negro Theater as an apprentice, working with Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Hilda Simms. 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 filmThe Jackie Robinson Story. 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.
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. She appeared in the role of 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.
Dee was nominated for eight Emmy Awards, winning once for her role in the 1990 TV film Decoration Day. 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.
In 1995, she and Davis were awarded the National Medal of Arts. 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. 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.
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 Titanic. This was Dee’s only Oscar nomination.
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.
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. Three years later she married actor Ossie Davis, who she met while costarring in the 1946 Broadway play Jeb. Together, Dee and Davis wrote an autobiography in which they discussed their political activism and their open marriage. 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.
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. In 1963, Dee emceed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. 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. In 1970, she won the Frederick Douglass Award from the New York Urban League. 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.
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 Rodham Clinton and Nita Lowey. In 2009 she received an Honorary Degree from Princeton University.
Dee died on June 11, 2014, at her home in New Rochelle, New York, from natural causes at the age of 91. 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, 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.” Dee will be cremated, and her ashes will be held in the same urn as that of Davis, with the inscription “In this thing together”.
- October, 27, 1922
- Cleveland, Ohio
- June, 11, 2014
- New Rochelle, New York
Cause of Death
- natural causes
- Cremated, Her ashes were placed in the same urn as Ossie Davis'. The insription on the urn reads