The late Ossie Davis and his wife Ruby Dee were one of Black Hollywood’s greatest love stories.
The legendary, actor, author, playwright, poet, and civil rights activist was born Raiford Chatman Davis in South Georgia’s Clinch County on December 18, 1917. Raised in the rural south, Davis and his family faced severe discrimination and threats from the likes of the Ku Klux Klan. At the urging of his family, he attended Howard University but dropped out after three years to pursue writing and drama as a career.
After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Davis began used his training with the Rose McLendon Players of Harlem to dive deeper into his craft. His first big film role came in 1950, alongside another actor he admired greatly – Sidney Poitier.
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He met actress Ruby Dee on the set of the 1946 play “Jeb.” She was born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland on October 27, 1922, but was raised in Harlem, N.Y. After graduating from Hunter College she joined the American Negro Theater where she started working with actors like Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and others.
After appearing in several Broadway productions, she gained greater recognition by starring in the film biopic “The Jackie Robinson Story,” in 1950. Dee first married blues singer Frankie Dee Brown in 1941. The marriage was short-lived but did give her the name she was known by for the rest of her life.
After their marriage in 1948, Dee and Davis became one of Hollywood’s top Black celebrity couples. The pair often worked together in and outside their profession. As activists, the couple befriended and provided their support to civil rights notables such as Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois, and Malcolm X, among others. The couple served as masters of ceremony for the 1963 March on Washington, and Davis delivered a moving, classic eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X.
Dee was the more prolific of the two. She originated the role of Ruth Younger on both the stage and screen in ” “A Raisin in the Sun,” in which she starred with Sidney Poitier. She and Davis appeared in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” and “Do The Right Thing.” Davis was also in Lee’s films “Get On The Bus,” and “She Hate Me.”
An eight-time Emmy nominee, Dee was nominated for an Oscar in 2007 for her role as Mama Lucas in “American Gangster.” At 83, she was the second-oldest woman to be nominated in the category of Best Supporting Actress.
In 2007, Davis and Dee tied with former president Jimmy Carter to win a Grammy award for the spoken word album version of their memoir “With Ossie And Ruby: In This Life Together.”
While Davis did not enjoy as much mainstream acclaim as his wife, he maintained a career as an actor until the very end of his life. Hs notable work included the 1965 movie ‘The Hill” with Sean Connery, “Joe Versus the Volcano” in 1990 and “Grumpy Old Men” in 1993.
One of the major distinctions of Davis’ career was his taking the helm as director for “Cotton Comes To Harlem,” “Gordon’s War” and “Black Girl.” He was among artists like Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Peebles who paved the way for more Black representation in the director’s chair in Hollywood. Davis’ career was also characterized by the dignity he brought even minor roles with his booming voice and dignified presence.
Honors bestowed upon both Davis and Dee include the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame, the National Medal of Arts, and the Kennedy Center Honors.
Davis passed in Miami, Fla. in February 2005 at the age of 87. Dee died at their home in New Rochelle, N.Y. in 2014. She was 91. Both were cremated and interred in the same urn inscribed “In This Thing Together.”
They were survived by their three children, blues musician Guy Davis, Nora Day and Hasna Muhammad.
PHOTO: John Mathew Smith
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