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As part of RCN’s celebration of Black History Month, we here at the “Showplace” are putting the spotlight on African American actors who excelled not just on the big and small screens but those who also inspired change with their courage and perseverance.

“The kind of beauty I want most is the hard-to-get kind that comes from within – strength, courage, dignity, the greatest gift is not being afraid to question. God, make me so uncomfortable that I will do the very thing I fear.”   — Ruby Dee

Ruby Dee provided inspiration throughout her life as an actress, playwright, screenwriter, journalist, poet and civil rights activist.  Her courage to portray powerful women and speak out against injustice has produced some of the most powerful quotes ever seen on the screen or in print.

Dee was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1922 and was raised in Harlem New York attending Hunter college high School and later Hunter College, majoring in romance language.  

Dee joined the American Negro Theater as an apprentice, working there with fellow future legends Sidney Poitier (with whom she would reunite to collaborate with on several projects during their careers) and Harry Belafonte.  After appearing on Broadway for many productions, her first onscreen role was in That Man of Mine in 1946. Dee received national recognition for her role in the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story.  In 1965, Dee became the first African American actress to tackle leading roles at the American Shakespeare Festival as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and Cordelia in King Lear.

Furthermore, she participated in various television projects and wrote books, short stories and poetry works, among them include “The Original Read-In For Peace For Vietnam,” “What If I Am A Woman (Volume 1 and 2),” “Tough Poems For Tough People,” To Make A Poet Black” and “To Be A Slave,” (the latter three projects co-written with her husband / actor Ossie Davis.)

She also participated in numerous civil right events, protests, marches and was a predominant speaker, speaking out against prejudice, racism and injustices.  Dee was a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1963, Dee emceed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom…

“There was so much meanness in the atmosphere, but marvelous things pierce through the darkness of poverty and racism. You meet all kinds of people that help put life in perspective and turn the heart into some kind of lesson or avenue of awakening that lives with you all of your days.”

For the next several decades, Dee continued her work on the screen, in print and as an active voice for civil rights.

In 1970, she won the Frederick Douglass Award from the New York Urban League, a nonpartisan organization advocating for economic and social justice for African Americans and speaking out against racial discrimination.

Dee was nominated for eight Emmy Awards and continued guest starring on television series and was featured in various films in the 1980s and 90s including Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and Jungle Fever.

In 1995, both Dee and her husband were awarded the National Medal of Arts.  In 1999, Dee and Davis were arrested in New York City, protesting the police shooting of Amadou Diallo.  In 2003, she narrated a series of WPA slave narratives for the HBO Films.

Dee was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2007 for her portrayal of Mama Lucas in American Gangster — and won the Screen Actors Guild Award for that same performance.

Her seven decade acting career crossed all major forms of media, including the film, A Raisin in the Sun, in which she recreated her stage role as a suffering housewife in the projects, and Edge of the City. She played both roles opposite Poitier.

“The world has improved mostly because unorthodox people did unorthodox things … not surprisingly they had the courage and daring to think they could make a difference.”

You can see Ruby Dee starring in The Jackie Robinson Story on RCN TV.  To view the complete rundown of classic programming on RCN TV, check out the weekly listings here on our website.