Emmy- and- Grammy Award-winning actor, director, playwright, and author Ossie Davis (pictured) is one of the most-beloved African-American figures in modern times. With a stately voice that commanded the attention of those who heard him speak and a loving union with his wife, Ruby Dee (pictured below), Davis cast an image of strength and dignity for those who adored him.
Born Raiford Chatman Davis on this date in 1917 in southeastern Georgia, Davis gained the name Ossie in a curious manner: a county clerk misheard Davis’ mother, Laura, while typing in the birth certificate. Although she stated to the clerk her son’s name was R.C., it was interpreted as “Ossie” and stuck with him from that point on.
Davis would enter the halls of Howard University in 1939, later dropping out to pursue writing and acting in New York. He would re-enter school at Columbia University in New York and then join an acting troupe, Rose McLendon Players, that was named after the celebrated Broadway actress and helmed by Negro People’s Theater co-founder Dick Campbell.
Watch an Ossie Davis tribute here:
Davis got his first big break in 1950 in the Sidney Poitier film “No Way Out.” Wanting to fashion his career after the distinguished Poitier, Davis consciously picked his roles so that he would not be seen as a minstrel character.
Starring in more than 40 films either as an actor or narrator, Davis also found fame in the world of television and graced the stage in a variety of roles, including a role in the musical “Jamaica,” where he was nominated for a Tony Award. Davis’ awards span his work as an actor, director, and playwright, and he was nominated several times during the course of his seven-decade career.
In 2001, Davis won a Daytime Emmy for his work on the children’s special “Finding Buck McHenry,” and he also won an Image award that same year for the role.
Davis met his wife during his stage debut in 1946 for the play “Jeb.” Ruby Dee was a fellow cast member, and the pair got married in 1948. The couple bore three children. Guy Davis (pictured above) was the only child to follow in his famous parents’ footsteps.
Watch Ossie and Ruby Dee act together in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever”:
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were also notable civil rights activists, sharing close alliances with Rev. Jesse Jackson, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. They were also organizers in the famous 1963 “March On Washington” as well. An effective orator, Davis delivered the eulogy at the funeral of the slain Malcolm X and also did a memorial tribute for Dr. King in New York just a day after the assassination.
Listen to Ossie’s Malcolm X eulogy here:
At age 87, Davis was found immobile in his hotel room in February 2005.
Ossie Davis was profoundly handsome in his youth and classically refined in his later years. The booming bass voice he possessed still held weight even up until the time of his death. He has been honored countless times along with his wife — and deservedly so. Ossie Davis was and is a true treasure of the African-American community.