CNN’s Don Lemon called Cicely Tyson a “true American” in announcing the iconic and pioneering actress’s death on Thursday, Jan. 28. The former model, turned stage and film actress, died two days after the release of her memoir, “Just As I Am.”
Tyson’s 70-year career represented a spectrum and range of Black experiences not often seen by television viewers and movie goers. For her part in using her platform to champion human and civil rights, Tyson was a 2015 Kennedy Center honoree. In November 2016, Tyson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former president Barack Obama, which is the highest civilian honor in the United States. Of Tyson, Obama said, “In her long and extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson has not only exceeded as an actor, she has shaped the course of history.”
Tyson the history maker was born in Harlem on December 19, 1924, the daughter of Nevis immigrants to the United States, Frederica Tyson and William Augustine Tyson. She was one of three children.
At 18-years-old, Tyson married Kenneth Franklin on December 27, 1942. The marriage was dissolved in 1956. She was married to music legend Miles Davis from 1981-1989.
A style icon in her own right, Tyson bucked the traditional Hollywood standard of beauty by appearing in movies and television shows wearing a close-cropped natural hairstyle in the 1960s progressing to African-inspired braids in the 1970s.
Her first acting role was on the NBC series Frontiers of Faith in 1951. Tyson played her first film role in Carib Gold in 1956. She became the first African American to star in a television drama when she starred in the celebrated series East Side/West Side (1963–1964).
She would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award for 1972's Sounder, a role that would forever place her name in the company of some of the most iconic stars in history. She also played Kunta Kinte's mother in the adaptation of Alex Haley's Roots and the title role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, earning two Emmy Awards in 1974.
In recent years, Tyson could be seen in TV shows and films, including The Help, How to Get Away with Murder, House of Cards, and Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion and Diary of a Mad Black Woman. After a 30-year absence from Broadway, Tyson won a Tony Award in 2013 for her role in The Trip to Bountiful.
Along with Arthur Mitchell, Tyson co-founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
In a statement to People, Larry Thompson, Tyson’s manager, shared, “I have managed Miss Tyson’s career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing. Cicely thought of her new memoir as a Christmas tree decorated with all the ornaments of her personal and professional life. Today she placed the last ornament, a Star, on top of the tree.”
Cicely Tyson leaves behind a daughter and niece.