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Photographed on September 25, 1962
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For more than half a century, Ruby Dee has been a prominent stage, film, and television actress, a dynamic activist in support of civil rights, and a ceaseless promoter of African-American arts and culture. She has successfully married these elements throughout her career by acting, writing, directing, and producing work that grapples with difficult questions about racial and economic stratification in the United States. With her husband, actor Ossie Davis, Dee has been a defining force in the struggle for racial equality. In addition, she and Davis have used their talents and considerable popularity to encourage the creation of politically relevant, socially influential entertainment.

Dee was born Ruby Ann Wallace. She spent most of her childhood in Harlem. Dee’s mother, a school teacher, introduced her children to fine music, classical drama, and great British and American poetry, including work by African-American writers such as Paul Laurence Dunbar. As a child, Dee became determined to pursue a career in the arts because of the love of music and literature her mother instilled in her.

At Hunter College, Dee studied romance languages and joined the American Negro Theater, which performed in the basement theater of the 135th Street Library. Within a year of her college graduation, Dee was appearing on Broadway in Jeb by Robert Ardrey. Ossie Davis played opposite Dee in the lead role. Dee and Davis appeared together in their next two plays and were married during a break in their rehearsal schedule.

Dee’s many stage successes include the title role in Anna Lucasta, an all-black play that, soon after its theatrical success, was made into a film with an all-white cast. She appeared with Diana Sands in Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play A Raisin in the Sun. Also among her most famous roles is the part of Lena in Boesman and Lena, a South African drama by Athol Fugard, in which she costarred with James Earl Jones. Dee has also performed many classical roles, including celebrated performances of some of Shakespeare’s most interesting women: Cordelia in King Lear, Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, and Gertrude in Hamlet.

Also well known as a film actress, in 1950 Dee starred in The Jackie Robinson Story, as the baseball player’s wife, Rachel Robinson, opposite Jackie Robinson himself. In 1958, she appeared in St. Louis Blues with an all-star cast that included Eartha Kitt, Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, and Pearl Bailey. Dee has appeared in many popular television mini series and made-for-TV movies and she continues to appear in popular films, as well as documentaries about prominent African Americans, including the controversial director Spike Lee.

Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis have enjoyed one of the most enduring relationships in the entertainment industry. Their artistic partnerships have resulted in some of their most successful dramatic projects, including Davis’s 1961 play, Purlie Victorious, in which Dee played Luttiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, a role that helped Dee shake a reputation as a the “Negro June Allyson.” More recently, the couple appeared together in Spike Lee’s films Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever.

Partners in activism as well as art, Dee and Davis have shared an unfaltering commitment to social justice. Together they spoke out against McCarthyism in the 1950s; Dee, in fact, was blacklisted because of her vocal opposition to the tactics of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The couple’s highly visible fight against racism, including their participation as emcees of the 1963 March on Washington and their involvement in more recent public protests, has been an influential force in the ongoing battle for civil rights in the United States.

Their dedication to the celebration of African-American art and culture is legendary. Together they have hosted two television programs, The Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Hour and With Ossie and Ruby! on PBS. These programs were devoted to exploring African-American culture and celebrating the contributions of African Americans to the entertainment industry and to American culture.


 

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