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Ruby Dee - Biography

American actress and civil rights activist Ruby enjoyed an incredible career spanning more than 70 years

Ruby Dee wearing blue suit holding award
Phoebe Tatham
Content Writer
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Ruby Dee once said: "The kind of beauty I want most is the hard-to-get kind that comes from within - strength, courage, dignity." The actress certainly seems to have achieved her wish. Paving the way for other black actresses during the Fifties and Sixties, campaigning for civil rights, and winning a fight against breast cancer, by her own definition the star has proved one of the most "beautiful" screen stars of our times.

Her early life

Ruby was born Ruby Ann Wallace on October 27, 1924, in Cleveland, Ohio, but moved to New York with her family while still a baby, growing up in Harlem. At 17 she wed Frankie Dee Brown, but by the time she graduated four years later from Hunter College with a degree in French and Spanish, the marriage was over. 

Translating her enthusiasm for the arts into performing Ruby took to the stage in Shakespearean productions and signed up to study with the American Negro theatre. It was while performing in Broadway play Jeb that she met her second husband Ossie Davis, a fellow cast member. 

Her career

Three years on Ossie proposed in a telegram, and the pair tied the knot in New Jersey on December 9, 1948. By then Ruby had already made her first movie What A Guy. But was 1950 flick The Jackie Robinson Story, about the first black major league baseball player, which really brought her to public attention. 

In the decades that followed she went on to win a host of choice African-American roles. She was the first black woman to take on lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival, and starred in political films Gone Are The Days and The Incident, blazing a trail for other black performers in the process. 

Juggling her career with three young children - Guy, Norma and Hasna she turned her hand to writing, penning the 1968 drama Uptight, which she also co-produced and starred in. By then a well-known face, Ruby used her high profile to help promote civil rights and racial equality. 

Along with her husband she counted Martin Luther King and Malcolm X among her friends, with Ossie famously reading the eulogy at Malcolm X's funeral in 1965. 

While her career spanned over 50 movies, Ruby's considerable talents crossed into numerous other fields. In 2007 she earned a best spoken word album Grammy for With Ossie And Ruby: In This Life Together, on which she and her husband recall their experiences as activists, parents, actors and a married couple. 

The honour joined her existing collection of gongs, which include an Emmy for TV film Decoration Day. In 2005 Ruby was on set in New Zealand when her beloved Ossie passed away at the age of 87. Although devastated by her loss, she continued to work on film projects, and three years later was recognised with a best supporting actress Oscar nod for crime drama American Gangster.

The acclaimed author and civil rights activist passed away aged 91 in 2014. 

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