Ruby Ann Wallace was a shy young girl when she read aloud from a play in school one day and something unexpected happened: Her classmates burst into applause.
It’s how she got the idea to go into acting, the singular talent the world later came to know as Ruby Dee once recalled.
It also was an early inkling of the incredible power her voice could have on audiences beyond Hollywood.
The courage of that voice made Dee stand out even more in an industry largely built on artifice and glossy imagery. Along with Ossie Davis, her fellow actor and husband of 56 years, Dee stood shoulder to shoulder with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington; publicly protested against apartheid, lynchings and police shootings; and steadily advocated for important civil rights and social causes for more than half a century.
“Ruby and Ossie were by Malcolm’s side, they were with Dr. King in Birmingham, Selma, and the March on Washington,” director Spike Lee said of the couple whom he cast in two of his films. “And (they) never worried about the negative impact it might have on their careers.”
Davis and Dee had met in 1946 when they were hired for the same Broadway production. That play, “Jeb,” lasted only nine performances. The marriage fared much better, producing three children, a much longer Broadway run for 1961’s “Purlie Victorious,” written by Davis and starring Dee, and co-starring roles on the big and small (“Evening Shade,” “Touched by an Angel”) screen. Together, they were awarded the National Medal of Arts, won a Grammy for “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together” and were recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004.
“For over five decades, Ossie and Ruby have been a force on the American stage and in the larger theater of our national life,” then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said at the Kennedy Center event. “We thank you for your abiding commitment to your art, your commitment to each other, and your commitment to building a better America and a better world.”
As an actress, Dee was good enough to snag an Oscar nomination at age 85 (for “American Gangster” in 2008) and gutsy enough to take on Cordelia in “King Lear.” That 1965 role, the first time an African-American actress played the lead in a prestigious American Shakespeare Festival production, was typical of her penchant for knocking down doors while simultaneously knocking critics’ and fans’ socks off: In 1959, she drew raves for her performance in the groundbreaking Broadway debut of “A Raisin in the Sun,” in which the entire cast, save for one role, was African-American. Dee and co-star Sidney Poitier reproduced their roles in the 1961 film version of “Raisin.”
Dee died at 91 in 2014, nine years after losing her beloved Ossie. But according to what she’d once told Jet magazine, they’d soon be reunited for all eternity, her cremated ashes co-mingled with Davis’ in an urn bearing an inscription that was a slight twist on the title of their Grammy-winning album:
“In this thing together.”
Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.