Celebrities, politicians, fans and the casual observer have continued to pay tribute to legendary actress Ruby Dee, who died at her home in New Rochelle, New York on June 12, 2014.
Like others, journalists including me have also been moved to reflect on the wonderful life of Dee, who, despite living for 91 years, still left too soon.
On a cold late afternoon in 2001, my telephone rang and I received the call back that I’d hope to get all day. On the other line were two of the most captivating and sincere individuals I have ever had the pleasure of interviewing, Ruby Dee and her husband of more than a half century, Ossie Davis.
They invited me to their home in New Rochelle and Davis cautioned that the couple, themselves aging, were taking care of Ossie’s mother, Laura Cooper Davis, who was 102 years old.
“African Americans should be the first to want to care for their parents,” Davis said. His wife said, after all, our parents are the backbone; they’ve laid a foundation for all of us. “How would that be my husband and I sending her to a nursing home? We have the means and the patience should be hard to muster up either when you think of all his mother has done for him and all that all of our mothers, particularly black mothers have had to sacrifice,” Dee said.
As the short journey from my office to their understated homestead commenced, it wasn’t easy to suppress the sheer excitement of sitting down with these two legends of the big and small screen and leaders of the civil rights movement.
As I entered their front gate, there were no security details, no one to suggest that I’d just entered the property of superstars. In fact, Dee, not a maid, answered my subtle knock.
“Come on in and tell me what I can fix for snacks,” she said. Though I declined, it was only moments before the aroma from the couple’s kitchen quickly made me change my mind.
We snacked on bread she had baked and some juice. We talked about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King as much as we spoke of their one-time neighbors, Denzel Washington and Sidney Poitier, whom Dee starred with in the groundbreaking Broadway play, “A Raisin’ in the Sun.”
“She’s a parent to anyone who knows her, that includes Poitier and Denzel,” Ossie said. “In fact, you’d think she really was their mother and the interesting thing is that she couldn’t be Sidney’s mother, he’s too old.”
Dee reminded both of us that in “A Raisin’ in the Sun,” she played Poitier’s wife.
It was a day that I’ll always remember, a day in which I learned a lot about how true legends should be.
Following her death, Dee’s family released a statement saying that plans for a public memorial are in the works.
It only stands to reason that such plans require substantial time as Dee enjoyed quite the fan base and a substantial following. Any memorial service, public or otherwise, would be certain to rival that provided a head of state or decorated war veteran.
“We lost a jewel, Mrs. Ruby Dee. So great, so loved,” said actor Samuel L. Jackson, who worked alongside the Emmy, Grammy and Spingarn Medal recipient in director Spike Lee’s 1991 film, “Jungle Fever.”
President Barack Obama, talk show host Oprah Winfrey and Attorney General Eric Holder were also among the countless politicians and celebrities to offer thoughts on Dee’s death.
Dee grew up in Harlem, New York. In 1941, she joined the American Negro Theatre, a repertory company best known for launching the careers of Harry Belafonte and Sydney Poitier.
She appeared in more than 100 films and television shows, earning numerous awards and recognition. Dee and Davis stood tall during the civil rights movement, working for the ideal of racial equality and freedom for all.
Dee served as a member of the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In 1963, Dee emceed the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and she and Davis, who died in 2005, proved to be close friends of King and Malcolm X, with Davis giving the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral in 1965.
The couple’s activism continued long after the civil rights movement. In 1999, Dee and Davis were arrested in New York for protesting the police shooting of the unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo.
In 2005 Dee and Davis received the Lifetime Achievement Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum located in Memphis, Tennessee.
Dee leaves behind her three children, Guy Davis, Hasna Muhammad Davis and Nora Day Davis.
“Through her remarkable performances, Ruby paved the way for generations of black actors and actresses, and inspired African-American women across our country,” President Obama said. “Through her leadership in the Civil Rights movement, she and her husband, Ossie Davis, helped open new doors of opportunity for all.”