Activist, actress Ruby Dee dies at 91

Ruby Dee attends "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross" New York Series Premiere at the Paris Theater on October 16, 2013 in New York City.

Ruby Dee, 91, the trailblazing actress, activist and American social conscience, died Wednesday night of natural causes at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y., surrounded by her three children and seven grandchildren.

She had outlived soul mate Ossie Davis, her husband of 56 years, by nearly a decade.

On Broadway, in movies, and as a civil rights activist, the birdlike woman with the stirring alto voice was a change-maker and also a beneficiary of the changes she helped make. "I didn't have the kind of talent or personality that kept me dreaming about Hollywood," she reflected late in life. "They don't hire little colored girls to do this and that." Yet on stage and on screens large and small she did this, that, and the other, working steadily for 66 years. She was a little woman (5-foot-2) who dominated dramas with her big eyes and modulated voice.

When the movie roles available to African American actresses mostly were domestics or temptresses, Miss Dee, a college graduate, played the college-educated spouse of the baseball hero in The Jackie Robinson Story in 1950. She and Davis, who wed in 1948, created groundbreaking roles on stage and screen.

Miss Dee's first triumph was on Broadway as Ruth Younger, wife of the struggling chauffeur Walter (Sidney Poitier), in A Raisin in the Sun, a role she reprised in the 1961 film.

In 1965, she was the first black actress to play leads at the American Shakespeare Festival, lauded for her interpretation of Kate in Taming of the Shrew and Cordelia in King Lear. She was one of the first black actors to have a recurring role on a daytime soap opera, as registered nurse Martha Frazier in The Guiding Light, in 1967. And she was the first black actor on the evening soap Peyton Place, as the wife of a neurologist.

In 1970, many listened when she complained: "I'm sick of being offered scripts about hookers or goody-good nurses! Black women fall in love and have adventures and secrets and are just as driven and gutsy as a lot of white ladies in middle America."

Miss Dee was just as outspoken about social politics, joining her husband as master of ceremonies at the 1963 march on Washington. Along with Davis, she eulogized Malcolm X at his funeral in 1965 and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at his in 1968. Miss Dee and Davis were among the few who were close to both those ideological opposites. Joined at the hip and the lips, Miss Dee and her husband led protests against apartheid in South Africa and lobbied banks to give business loans to blacks.

"You could not think of theater without thinking of social awareness," Harry Belafonte said to an Inquirer reporter about Miss Dee in 2005. "Ruby and Ossie, Sidney Poitier and myself - our lives were measured by our art - which had the themes of raising social conscience."

Born Ruby Wallace in Cleveland, Miss Dee was the daughter of a Pullman porter. She moved to New York as a child and was raised in Harlem during its Renaissance. A graduate of Hunter College, she received a degree in Romance languages. In 1941, she wed blues singer Frankie Dee Brown and adopted his middle name as her surname. They divorced in 1945.

After the war, she apprenticed at the American Negro Theater, where she met Belafonte and Poitier, who would become lifelong friends and political confreres. In 1946, she met her second husband when they costarred in the Civil War-era play Jeb. They wed in 1948 and had three children: Guy Davis, Nora Day, and Hasna Muhammad.

In midcareer, Miss Dee received some of her best notices in the 1970 Off-Broadway production of Athol Fugard's Boeeman and Lena. The play is set in South Africa under apartheid, and the title characters are a brutal husband and his brutalized wife, a mixed-race couple squatting in the mudflats. Despite her suffering, Miss Dee's Lena has a resilience and spirit that dominate her dominator.

She received an Obie for that performance, one of her many awards, which also included a 1990 Emmy for Decoration Day, a 1995 National Medal for the Arts, a 2001 Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, a 2004 Kennedy Center Honor, a 2005 Marian Anderson Award, and a 2007 Grammy for spoken-word album (With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together).

She did memorable work for Poitier as the wife of the director-star's Buck in Buck and the Preacher (1972). The director Spike Lee revitalized Miss Dee's movie career in Do the Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991). In the former, she is a Brooklyn matron who keeps her cool on the hottest day of the year; in the latter, a Harlem matriarch struggling with her crack-addicted son (Samuel L. Jackson).

One of her great late-career appearances was as the mother of drug kingpin Denzel Washington in American Gangster (2007), for which she was Oscar-nominated in the supporting actress category. Who can forget her as the elegantly dressed and coiffured matriarch who quietly snaps at her son: "You don't shoot cops! Even I know that . . . . The only one who doesn't seem to know is you." It is one of the rare times on screen that Washington looks nonplussed.

Miss Dee revealed her funeral arrangements to Jet Magazine in 2008. She said that she planned to be cremated and have her ashes joined with those of her husband in an urn inscribed, "In this thing together."

In addition to her children, Miss Dee is survived by seven grandchildren and the countless individuals she inspired with her grace and gravity.

Contact Carrie Rickey at Follow her on Twitter @CarrieRickey.