On January 28, 2021, the world lost a shining star, Cicely Tyson. The pioneering actress who transcended stage, film, and television passed away at the age of 96.
According to Variety, Miss Tyson’s death was announced by her family, via her manager, Larry Thompson, who did not immediately provide additional details.“With heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon. At this time, please allow the family their privacy,” according to a statement issued through Mr. Thompson.
Though she is gone, the world will never forget her talent nor resilient spirit. Let’s take a look at her incredible life and how she transformed Hollywood.
Cicely Tyson was born on December 19, 1924 to Fredericka and William Augustine Tyson, immigrants from Nevis in the West Indies. Tyson and her two older siblings were raised by their mother after her parents separated when she was 10. According to ABC7, due to their mother struggling to make ends meet, Tyson would sell shopping bags on the streets of Harlem at nine years old. The article further states, she attended Charles Evans Hughes High School in Chelsea and worked as a secretary for the American Red Cross before becoming a model. She eventually studied at The Actor’s Studio in Hell’s Kitchen, followed by small television roles until her big break playing Stephanie Virtue in the off-Broadway drama The Blacks in 1961.
Transition Into A Household Name
From ingenious roles to groundbreaking firsts, Cicely Tyson accomplished a great deal in her seven decade spanning career. As a multi-faceted performer, she utilized her talent on stage and on screens, both big and small. According to Essence, Tyson became the first African-American to star in a television drama when she joined the series East Side/West Side in 1963. As she transitioned into a household name, Tyson was nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe Award in 1972 for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama for her role in Sounder. Then in 1974 for her performance in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Cicely Tyson won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress, an Emmy Award for Actress of the Year, and she was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
In 1977 Cicely Tyson was nominated for Outstanding Single Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Comedy or Drama Series at the Emmys. That same year, she was also inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. In the 1978 miniseries King, Tyson earned another Emmy nomination for her portrayal of Coretta Scott King. As she continued to dominate entertainment with dozens of TV programs, films and stage plays, Tyson accumulated more nominations and awards to count.
Besides being a phenomenal actress who broke racial barriers, Cicely Tyson captured the heart of Black America. In a world that values whiteness, Cicely became a beauty champion who declared that Black is beautiful. According to CNN, she became one of the first Black actresses to wear her hair in an afro, inspiring Black women to follow. The article further states, her influence reigned supreme once again, when she wore cornrows while promoting the movie “Sounder” in 1972. Just a year later, Cicely Tyson helped usher in a new perspective for braided styles when she appeared in Jet magazine’s March 1973.
“They’d been brainwashed into believing that all things relating to physical blackness were bad, negative, less than good and less than white. But I knew it was just a question of time before the whole picture took on its true colors.” – Cicely Tyson
Her career sustained success as she was awarded the Kennedy Center lifetime achievement award in 2015. The next year, then-President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the nation. Just two days before her death, Cicely Tyson released her anticipated memoir, Just As I Am. Though she spent decades telling the stories of other people, it was time that she told her own.
Though incredibly private, the late actress opened up about her life and it’s turmoil. According to Vulture, Tyson wrote about working several jobs to help support herself and daughter, Joan. Eventually, she sent Joan to a boarding school far from their home in New York City, and she described the great distance between them as painful. Tyson also recalls delightful memories of being Lenny Kravitz’s godmother and beloved encounters with ex-husband Miles Davis.
In one of her last interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Cicely Tyson expresses her desire to be remembered for doing her best, and her wish will be fulfilled.