On this day in 1924, Ruby Dee, the trailblazing African-American actress, writer and activist whose long career will include such movies as A Raisin in the Sun and American Gangster, is born in Cleveland, Ohio.
Dee was raised in the Harlem section of New York City, where she studied piano and violin, and attended Hunter College. She was involved with the American Negro Theatre, along with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, and in 1943 made her Broadway debut in the drama South Pacific (not to be confused with the musical of the same name). In 1946, Dee appeared on Broadway in Jeb, a play by the actor and writer Ossie Davis; she and Davis married in 1948. In addition to her stage work during the 1940s, Dee had several small film roles before her breakout performance in 1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story, in which she played Rachel Robinson, the wife of the man who broke the color barrier in professional baseball.
In 1957, Dee appeared in Edge of the City, starring Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes, and the following year she was featured in St. Louis Blues, a biopic about “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy, with a cast that included Nat “King” Cole, Eartha Kitt, Cab Calloway and Mahalia Jackson. In 1959, Dee co-starred with Poitier on Broadway in the playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a family drama that was the first ever Broadway show written by a black woman and directed by a black man. Dee and Poitier also starred together in the 1961 big-screen adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun.
During the late 1960s, Dee appeared on the popular TV show Peyton Place. She continued her stage and film work in the 1970s, appearing with Davis in the top-rated 1979 historical miniseries Roots: The Next Generations. In the 1980s and 1990s, she appeared in such films as Do the Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991), both written and directed by Spike Lee, as well as the 1999 made-for-TV movie Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.
Dee and Davis were longtime civil-rights activists who served as masters of ceremony at the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Davis eulogized both Malcolm X and Dr. King at their funerals. In 1995, the couple was awarded the Presidential Medal for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts. After Ossie Davis died at the age of 87 on February 4, 2005, Dee continued her career. She appeared in the 2005 TV movie Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was executive produced by Oprah Winfrey, and received her first Oscar nomination, in the Best Supporting Actress category, for her performance as the mother of drug kingpin Frank Lucas (played by Denzel Washington) in 2007’s American Gangster, also starring Russell Crowe. The octogenarian actress, who was the second-oldest Oscar nominee in history (behind Gloria Stuart for Titanic), lost the award to Tilda Swinton for Michael Clayton.