According to reports, Dee died peacefully of natural causes at her home in New Rochelle, NY.
With her late husband, Ossie Davis, who died in 2005, Dee seamlessly combined a life of civil rights activism with a pathbreaking career on stage and in film, playing lead roles in an era of segregation. In 1950, she gained national attention playing Jackie Robinson’s wife in the film, The Jackie Robinson Story. In 1959, Dee was the first actress to play the struggling wife Ruth in Lorraine Hansberry’s stage drama, A Raisin in the Sun. The landmark play is currently revived on Broadway.
In fact, during Sunday’s Tony Awards, Audra McDonald hailed Dee — along with such African-American women as Maya Angelou — for making it possible for McDonald to have the career she does.
Dee became the second oldest nominee for a best supporting actress Academy Award when she nominated at 86 for her performance in American Gangster in 2007. She was nominated for eight Emmy Awards, winning one in 1990 — in several cases, she was the first African-American woman to appear in a series. In 2007, she split a Grammy Award for best-spoken-word album with her husband Davis (for their joint memoir) and former President Jimmy Carter.
Dee and her husband often worked together — as in Davis’ 1961 stage comedy, Purlie Victorious, when she played the funny, naive Lutiebelle. The two co-starred as well in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991).
In 1982, KERA produced 26 episodes of the anthology series, With Ossie & Ruby. The two hosted the show and acted in several episodes. Dee also narrated After Goodbye: An AIDS Story, the Emmy Award-winning documentary about the devastating impact of AIDS on the Turtle Creek Chorale. In 2000, she narrated the KERA documentary, Ready for Life, which followed six Texas families raising infants.
At the March on Washington in 1963
The daughter of a railroad porter and a schoolteacher, Dee grew up in Harlem, graduated from Hunter College and joined the American Negro Theatre in 1941. As small as Dee was, she still grabbed attention with her large eyes and her strength of character. Born Ruby Ann Wallace, she took the name Dee after her brief marriage to blues singer Frankie Dee. She kept the name professionally, even after the two divorced and she married Davis.
In addition to their lifetime of battling for (and creating) equal roles for African-Americans in the performing arts, Dee and Davis were directly active in the civil rights movement. They appeared at the 1963 March on Washington and were friends with both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. They hosted a 1963 fundraiser for the Rev. King after his release from the Birmingham Jail, while Davis famously delivered the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral in 1965. In addition, the two protested against the Vietnam War and the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of espionage in 1953. Dee was a member of the NAACP, CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) and SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). The couple was inducted into the NAACP Hall of Fame in 1989.
From With Ossie & Ruby, the episode: “When The Revolution Came.”
Ruby Dee performs her poem, “Daughter,” with Odetta playing “When I a Young Girl”