“The world has improved mostly because unorthodox people did unorthodox things. Not surprisingly, they had the courage and daring to think they could make a difference.”

Ruby Dee

Ruby Dee was an acclaimed American actor, screenwriter, author and poet who was also a lifelong civil rights campaigner.

Ruby Dee was born Ruby Anne Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1924. Her family moved to Harlem in New York when she was still a baby. After graduating from High School, she attended Hunter College, gaining a BA in Romance Languages, and studied acting at the American Negro Theatre (ANT). She made several appearances on Broadway and her first screen role was playing Janie in the 1947 film, That Man of Mine.

As an actor, Ruby Dee appeared on stage, film and television for over 70 years. On the big screen she is perhaps best-known for her widely acclaimed portrayal of downtrodden housewife, Ruth Younger, in the 1961 film, A Raisin in the Sun. Ruby had previously played the role on stage several years earlier when the play, written by Lorraine Hansberry, debuted on Broadway in 1959. The New York Drama Critic’s Circle named it the best play of the year. In 1965 Ruby performed at the American Shakespeare Festival, playing Cordelia in King Lear and Kate in Taming of the Shrew. She was the first black actress to take a leading role at the festival.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Ruby was a regular face on national television and appeared in a number of iconic and hugely successful programmes. For example, she played Alma Miles in primetime soap opera, Peyton Place in 1968 – 1969, becoming the first African American woman to be featured in the series and she appeared in an episode of the hugely popular crime drama, Police Woman, playing a character loosely based on Angela Y Davis. She also played Queen Haley in the 1979 mini-series Roots: The Next Generations, a role which earned her one of her eight Emmy nominations.

Ruby often worked with her husband, Ossie Davis, whom she married in 1948. The couple met whilst both were working on the 1946 Broadway production, Jeb. They were particularly keen to produce television which portrayed African America culture and heritage and promoted other black performers and writers. They produced a number of TV ‘specials’ including Today is Ours, Martin Luther King: The Dream and The Drum. In 1974, they produced The Ruby Dee / Ossie Davis Story Hour for the National Black Network and in 1981 they produced the series With Ossie and Ruby for the Public Broadcasting System.

Ruby and Ossie were also involved in the civil rights movement and were tireless campaigners for racial equality. Ruby was a member of, amongst other organisations, The Congress of Racial Equality, The Student Non-Violent Co-ordination Committee and The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Both were close friends of Martin Luther King Jr. and attended the 1936 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Ruby was an MC. In 1970, the National Urban League honoured Ossie and Ruby with the Frederick Douglass Award for Distinguished Leadership Towards Equal Opportunity. 

In 1999, Ruby and Ossie were arrested at 1 Police Plaza, the headquarters of the New York Police Department. There were there to protest the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant who had been fatally shot by white police officers. In November 2005, The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis awarded Ruby their Lifetime Achievement Freedom Award.

In addition to her work as a performer, Ruby was also a writer. She authored two children’s books, Tower to Heaven and Two Ways to Count To Ten, and co-authored a joint autobiography with her husband, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together. She wrote a book of poems and short stories, My One Good Nerve, which she later adapted into a solo performance piece and wrote or adapted a number of stage plays including Take it From the Top, The Stepmother and Zora is My Name.

Ruby’s acting career continued throughout her later life and she remained an ever-popular presence on stage and screen. She appeared in two of Spike Lee’s films: Do the Right Thing in 1989 and Jungle Fever in 1991. She won and Emmy for her appearance in 1991 TV movie, Decoration Day

In 1995, Ruby and Ossie were awarded the National Medal of Arts, and in March 2001, when they had been married for 52 years, they received the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. They were also recipients of the Kennedy Centre Honours in 2004. Sadly, Ossie died suddenly in 2005. Despite her tremendous grief, Ruby continued to work. 

In 2007, Ruby appeared in American Gangster playing Mama Lucas, the mother of a notorious crime kingpin played by Denzel Washington, a towering performance that earned her an Oscar nomination and a Screen Actors Guild Award. In February 2009, then in her late 80s, Ruby performed at the Riverside Church in New York in honour of Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday.

Ruby died in June 2014 at her home in Rochelle, New York. She was 91 years old. 

References include ossieandruby.com, Britannica, Notable Biographies. ©The Heroine Collective 2019 – Present, All Rights Reserved. Every effort is made to ensure our articles are as accurate as they can possibly can be, but if you notice a factual error, please do be in touch. We only use images we believe are either in the public domain or images we believe we are able to use for illustrative, editorial and non-commercial purposes. If you believe one of our images is being used incorrectly, please be in touch. 

Josephine Liptrott

Written by Josephine Liptrott

Josephine worked in marketing and customer relations prior to taking up a place at drama school. She now works as an actor and also writes for several different publications both online and in print. A northerner by birth, she currently lives in London and has been an ardent feminist since her teens.

Image by

Chicago Sun Times [Public domain]