Ruby Dee was born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio. Her father, Marshall Edward Wallace, was a porter and waiter on the Pennsylvania Railroad; her mother, Emma Wallace, was a schoolteacher. They moved to Harlem in New York City when Ruby was a baby. She was educated at Public School 119 and Hunter College, and her formal education was supplemented by instruction in classical literature and music at home. Although asked to leave Hunter College when her activities at the American Negro Theater—a Harlem group which also included Hilda Simms, Harry Belafonte, and Sidney Poitier—took up too much of her energy and time, Dee graduated in 1945 with a bachelor's degree in French and Spanish. She worked briefly as a translator for an import company, but her extracurricular activities soon became her career.
Dee's work has run the gamut of entertainment media: she has acted on stage, film, television, and radio, and she has recorded poetry. Her Broadway debut, a walk-on part in South Pacific (a play about World War II that appeared before the Rogers and Hammerstein musical), came in 1943, while she was still at college. Only three years later, she appeared on Broadway in Jeb (1946), opposite her husband-to-be, Ossie Davis. They married in 1948 and have collaborated closely ever since. Dee achieved national recognition in the title role of Anna Lucasta (tour, 1946-1947). She went on to principal roles in A Raisin in the Sun (1959); Purlie Victorious (1961), subsequently filmed in 1963; and Athol Fugard's Boesman and Lena (1970), with James Earl Jones, for which she won an Obie in 1971. As Kate in The Taming of the Shrew (1965), and Cordelia in King Lear, she became the first black woman to play major parts in the American Shakespeare Festival. Most recently, she has appeared in Two Hah Hahs and a Homeboy (1995) with her husband and her son, Guy Davis.
Dee has appeared in over 20 films, most importantly as the baseball player's wife in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), with Sidney Poitier in Edge of the City (1957), and in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989). Her television work is more extensive, including many guest appearances, the series With Ossie and Ruby (PBS, 1981), and dramas such as Long Day's Journey into Night (PBS, 1983). She has received numerous awards, including an Emmy for Decoration Day (NBC) in 1991, and a Literary Guild Award (1989) in recognition of her plays, poems, and children's stories. She has been inducted into both the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame (1975) and the Theater Hall of Fame (1988).
A well known social activist and a member of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dee speaks at many high-profile benefits. Having experienced first-hand the difficulties encountered by minorities in her profession, she established the Ruby Dee Scholarship in Dramatic Art for talented young black women.
Ms. Dee was married to award-winning actor Ossie Davis for more than 50 years. They lived in New York City. Mr. Davis died on Feb. 4, 2005 at age 87.