Raiford Chatman Davis, also known as “Ossie” Davis, was an icon of the American entertainment arena playing roles in film, television and Broadway. He also served as a director, poet, playwright, author, and civil rights activist.
Ruby Dee, born Ruby Ann Wallace, was also a formidable actress, poet, playwright, screenwriter, journalist, and civil rights activist. She is a Grammy, Emmy, Obie and Drama Desk winner.
Dee and Davis were married in December 1948, during a day off from rehearsals from another play they were appearing in. The couple frequently performed until the death of Davis in 2005.
Dee and Davis were named to the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame; were awarded the National Medal of Arts and were recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors.
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which hosts the archive of Dee and Davis, traces more than 60 years “in the theater, in the movies and at the front lines of social activism,” the New York Times reported.
It added that by the 1970s, the couple was part of the emerging black independent film movement, with the archive revealing that Davis wrote or directed six movies, including “Cotton Comes to Harlem” and “Countdown at Kusini” (1976), credited as the first American feature shot entirely in Africa by black professionals.
The joint archive on the pair also shows more than 50 years of correspondence, much of it written when they were apart for work. It spans more than 145 bankers boxes of photographs, letters, scripts and other materials.
It’s little wonder that after many years together on stage, screen and the front lines of social activism, The New York Times could not help but describe them as being “without peer in an industry not known for nurturing black people, older people or long marriages.”
Dee and Davis emerged as part of the African-American theater movement of the 1940s to Broadway (they were both in the original 1959 production of “A Raisin in the Sun”) and then to Hollywood.
They appeared together or separately in more than 50 movies, including Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” and “Jungle Fever.”
They also served as M.C.’s at the 1963 March on Washington. Davis, a close friend of Malcolm X, delivered the eulogy with Ahmed Osman at his funeral. He also delivered a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr at a memorial in New York’s Central Park the day after King was assassinated.
The couple although had featured in Broadway productions, only met when they were cast opposite each other in “Jeb,” a play by Robert Ardrey that opened on Broadway in 1946. They would go on to appear in 11 plays together.
Born in Cogdell, Clinch County, Davis became known as “Ossie” when his birth certificate was being filed and the courthouse clerk misheard his mother’s pronunciation of his name as “R. C. Davis.”
Experiencing racism from an early age fueled his activism, according to reports. His 80-year acting career is one of the longest runs, getting his film debut in 1950 in the Sidney Poitier film “No Way Out”. He voiced Anansi the spider on the PBS children’s television series Sesame Street in its animation segments, according to an account.
As a director, his works include “Gordon’s War”, “Black Girl” and “Cotton Comes to Harlem”. Davis was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1994.
The couple produced son Guy Davis and daughters Nora Davis Day and Hasna Muhammad. Davis was found dead in a Miami hotel room on February 4, 2005. His wife Dee also passed away nine years later.