Ruby Dee: Harlem legend dies at 91

In this Monday, June 2, 2008, file photo, Actress Ruby Dee arrives for the Apollo Theater’s annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony in New York.
AP Photo/Jason DeCrow, File
AP Photo/Jason DeCrow, File

The lights on Broadway dimmed for 60 seconds at 7:45 p.m., two days after the passing of a stage legend. But on June 11, the entertainment capital of New York informed the world with what has become a reliable billboard for death notices when the Apollo Theater marquee read “A True Apollo Legend Ruby Dee 1922-2014.”

The community message board became a gathering point when passersby near the 125th St. landmark stopped to stare at the notice, commiserate and some openly grieved the passing of an iconic achiever who was regarded a neighbor in the Village of Harlem.

Dee was not from Harlem but in no other community was she as revered as in the Village she adopted since growing up there.

Ruby Ann Wallace was born in Cleveland but she grew up in Harlem and graduated from Hunter College with degrees in French and Spanish in 1944.

Acclaimed as an actress, she was first married to blues singer Frankie Dee Brown in the 1940s.

But she found her soul mate and constant companion when she met and married actor and activist Ossie Davis. They were married for 56 years until his death in 2005.

Together they were considered a Black power couple.

They marched together with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and were friends with Malcolm X.

Of her participation in the Civil Rights movement, Dee said: “We used the arts as part of our struggle.”

They emceed the 1963 March on Washington and protested apartheid in South Africa.

Dee and her husband were arrested in 1999 for protesting the police shοοting deαth of African immigrant Amadou Diallo.

Their autobiography “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together” won them the 2007 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album.

For her performance in television she was nominated eight times for the highest honor. She won an Emmy in 1991. She was also nominated for an Academy Award in 2007 for her portrayal of the mother of a drug-lord portrayed by Denzel Washington in the film “American Gangster.”

Washington and Dee had previously worked onstage in 1988 when Washington made his Broadway debut in the comedy “Checkmates.”

In films she collaborated with Nat King Cole, Eartha Kitt and Cab Calloway in “The Jackie Robinson Story.”

She starred in more than 40 movies.

Onstage and in films Davis and Dee were seen in many, many films. Frequently appearing in many directed by Spike Lee, he regarded them as surrogate parents while admiring each as role models, superlative actors and inspiration for the Black community.

In 1965 she became the first Black woman to play lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival. She joined the American Negro Theater in 1941 after becoming involved in acting as a teenager. Her first major career break came in 1946 when she performed in the Broadway production “Anna Lucasta.” However, most memorable is her role alongside Sidney Poitier in “A Raisin In The Sun” in 1959.

Dee worked again with Poitier in 1972, costarring with Harry Belafonte in “Buck & The Preacher.”

She is survived by their three children: daughters Nora and Hasna and son Guy Davis, an actor, blues musician and choreographer along with seven grandchildren who were present when she passed.

“She very peacefully surrendered,” her daughter Nora said from Dee’s New Rochelle home where she died.

“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.”

On learning of her passing President Barack Obama issued this statement about Dee: “Michelle and I were saddened to hear of the passing of actress, author, and activist Ruby Dee. In roles from Ruth Younger in ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ to Mama Lucas in ‘American Gangster,’ Ruby captivated and challenged us – and Michelle and I will never forget seeing her on our first date as Mother Sister in ‘Do the Right Thing.’ Through her remarkable performances, Ruby paved the way for generations of black actors and actresses, and inspired African-American women across our country. Through her leadership in the civil rights movement she and her husband, Ossie Davis, helped open new doors of opportunity for all. Our thoughts and prayers are with Ruby and Ossie’s three children, with their friends and family, and with all those who loved them dearly.”

The 91-year-old activist and grand dame will reportedly spend eternity with her late husband — their ashes will be sealed inside a single urn. Reportedly together they made that request and asked that on the outside of the urn, their sentiments should read: “In This Thing Together.”

A documentary on the couple’s trailblazing life and career, “Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee,” debuts June 22 at the 18th Annual American Black Film Festival in Chelsea. It was directed by Dee and Davis’ grandson Muta’Ali.

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