Human beings are an incredible set of circumstances.” That’s how Ruby Dee—the pint-sized force of nature who trailblazed a path through seven decades of theater, film, television and civil rights activism—often summed up what it meant to be alive. On June 11, 2014, with her family surrounding her at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y., the 91-year-old pioneer traded one extraordinary leg of her journey for the next one.

Actress. Artist. Poet. Crusader. Wife. Mother. Friend. Those closest to her testify that Ruby’s legacy transcends any single categorization; to choose one is to diminish the grandeur of her sum total. She shone in each of those roles, often more brilliantly with each passing decade. Yet always at the core was a feisty girl from Harlem who took up the arts with as much fervor as she took up the causes of others.

Born in Cleveland in 1922, Ruby Ann Wallace moved to Harlem when she was just a child. She wrote poetry and dreamed of becoming an actress, an audacious thought for a time when few Black actors claimed the spotlight. Ruby once told NPR that as a young woman, she had no Black screen idols. “It occurred to me that being what they call ‘colored,’ being a Negro, was some kind of a disadvantage,” she said then.