Dee with husband Davis when pair won Lifetime Achievements Award from the Screen Actor’s Guild in 2001

Stage and screen legend Ruby Dee, who personified grace, grit, and progress at a time when African-American women were given little space in the movies or stage died Wednesday in New Rochelle, NY at the age of 91. Her death was confirmed today by a Arminda Thomas and the cause of death was not disclosed.

Dee, along with her late husband Ossie Davis, was a formidable force in both the performing arts community and the civil rights movement. She was friends with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She also received the Frederick Douglass Award in 1970 from the National Urban League.

Though born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio in 1922, she took the surname Dee after marrying blues singer Frankie Dee two decades later. She divorced Dee after a short marriage and was wedded to Davis in 1948.

The New York-raised actress and activist, winner of an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Screen Actors Guild Awards among many others, starred on Broadway (Take It From the Top!, Two Hah Hahs and a Homebody), film (Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever), and also TV (All God’s Children, Feast of All Saints). In 2005 Dee and husband Davis received the National Civil Rights Museum’s Lifetime Achievement Freedom award. Davis died in February of that year. Dee’s last Broadway performance was in the 1988 comedy Checkmates, which marked the debut of Denzel Washington, who is currently on the boards in Poitier role in A Raisin in the Sun, a production that originally premiered with Dee in a main role as the wife of Poitier that they later reprised for film.

Beyond her artistic work, Dee is best known for her work as an activist. She was long a member of such organizations as the Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Davis wrote a eulogy to Malcolm X in 1965 and Dee herself did a compelling reading for King’s March two years later.

The couple raised eyebrows with an autobiography that advocated open marriage, saying that lies, not extramarital affairs, destroy marriages. They later said that they came to realize that they didn’t need anyone else. A documentary on the couple’s trailblazing career and personal history, A Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee will screen on June 18 at the 18th Annual American Black Film Festival in Chelsea. The film was directed by the couple’s grandson Muta’Ali and hopefully will add even more of a remembrance of the great deeds Dee has done and how she will not be forgotten in her magnificent work and actions.

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