Two Emmys, a Tony, an honorary Oscar and the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the iconic Cicely Tyson was a distinguished film, stage and TV actress much admired for her portrayal of resilient African American women.
Born on December 19, 1924 in New York City as the youngest of three children to immigrants from the Caribbean island of Nevis, Cicely Tyson started off her career as a fashion model before turning to acting. Her career on stage and screen ended up spanning seven decades. “Just As I Am” — Tyson’s first memoir — was published just days before her death at age 96 on January 28, 2021.
Portrayed women with strength, courage
The 1972 film “Sounder” netted Tyson an Oscar nomination for best actress. She told the American Film Institute what had intrigued her about the role of Rebecca, the Depression-era wife of a Louisiana sharecropper: “Her strength, her courage, her love for her family, her knowledge that no matter how difficult things were, they were going to get better.”
Tyson starred in numerous TV series and films, including in the landmark 1977 miniseries “Roots” with poet Maya Angelou. Based on American author Alex Haley’s bestseller of the same name, Tyson played the mother of a boy captured by slave traders. She was nominated for an Emmy for the role.
Rights and equality
A year, later, Tyson portrayed Coretta Scott King in the TV miniseries “King” about the life of American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. His wife, Coretta, was active in the women’s movement and also an advocate for African American equality. This photo was taken on set in Macon, Georgia.
In 2011, Tyson played a maid working for a white family in the movie “The Help.” The hit film looked at how the unspoken code of rules and behavior in a southern town in the early 1960s changed as a result of an unlikely friendship. Decades earlier, the iconic actress received two Emmys for her role as former slave in the 1974 TV drama “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”
‘One more great role’
After three decades away from the stage, Tyson won a Tony Award for best actress for her portrayal of Carrie Watts in the 2013 Broadway revival of the play “The Trip to Bountiful.” Tyson, 88 years old at the time, said in her acceptance speech that she had “burning desire to do just one more — one more great role. I didn’t want to be greedy. I just wanted one more.”
Former President Barack Obama awarded Tyson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, at a ceremony at the White House in 2016. “Cicely’s convictions and grace have helped for us to see the dignity of every single beautiful memory of the American family,” said Obama.
An Oscar at last
Tyson, first nominated for an Oscar in 1972, received an honorary Oscar statuette in November 2018. “This is the culmination of all those years of have and have-not,” she told the crowd in her acceptance speech.
A true legend
“Rest in power,” “A true legend” and “This one hurts”: Condolences and memories poured in after the news of Tyson’s death broke on Thursday. “Cicely decided early on that her work as an actor would be more than a job. She used her career to illuminate the humanity of Black people… The roles she played reflected her values; she never compromised,” wrote TV mogul Oprah Winfrey on Instagram.