Paying Tribute To Cicely Tyson

Spotlight / Editorial Spotlight
Michael Ochs Archives
Danielle Scruggs
Feb 14, 2021
Cicely Tyson, who passed away on January 28 at the age of 96, was a force. Not only was she a multiple‑award‑winning actress, author, and humanitarian, she was a trailblazer who spoke truth to power and established a blueprint for other actors to follow. In a six‑decade career that spanned across TV, film, and the stage, Tyson was a unique figure, carving out a lane for herself through fully realized, expansive, and dignified performances in a time when such roles were few and far between for Black actresses.

Tyson was born in 1924 in Harlem, New York, one of three children to parents who immigrated from the Caribbean island of Nevis. She worked as a model before pursuing acting. Tyson landed her first on‑screen role in Carib Gold in 1956. Shortly afterward, she enrolled in acting classes and began appearing in Off‑Broadway productions. By 1963, she became the first Black star of a TV show in East Side/West Side, a drama series starring George C. Scott. She immediately sparked a style trend by choosing to wear her hair in a close‑cropped afro, a bold choice at a time when Black women were rarely seen on TV screens at all, let alone wearing their hair in its natural state. It was one example of Tyson's fierce commitment to accuracy and staying true to the life of the characters she chose to embody.

Tyson went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for her role as Rebecca Morgan, a sharecropper's wife in the 1972 family drama Sounder, joining a small club of just 12 Black women and girls to be nominated in the category for Best Actress. Tyson also had iconic roles in television, playing Binta, Kunta Kinte’s mother in Roots, Harriet Tubman in A Woman Called Moses, and the titular role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, for which she earned two Emmy Awards in 1974. By 1994, she earned a third Emmy for her role as a housekeeper in the CBS miniseries Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. Tyson, whose luminous presence on screen and on stage was marked by grace and grounded in sincerity, appeared in other iconic and popular television series, including The Women of Brewster Place and How To Get Away With Murder. “My gratification in working comes from the preparation and building of the character,” she said in a 2014 interview with

Tyson's stage career was as robust as her on‑screen career. She made her Broadway debut in 1959, as Eartha Kitt's understudy in Jolly's Progress. In 1983, Tyson played the lead in The Corn is Green, a play set in a Welsh mining town. In 2013, she returned to Broadway, playing Carrie Watts in The Trip To Bountiful, for which she earned a Tony award for her performance.

Tyson was a fully committed artist, deeply researching each character and flatly refusing to take on roles that she felt were exploitative and one‑dimensional depictions of Black life. She consistently spoke out against the discrimination she faced being a Black woman in an industry that remains largely white and male. “I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress,”  she said in an interview with Gayle King just days before she passed away. “And I would use my career as my platform.”

Tyson brought that same passion and commitment to her humanitarian activities. She supported New Orleanians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina through the Children's Defense Fund, and remained active in several other charities, including Urban Gateways, the Human Family Institute, and the American Film Institute. She received awards from the National Council of Negro Women and the NAACP. And she was a regular presence at the Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts in East Orange, New Jersey, which was named in her honor in 1995. She mentored students as they matriculated through the school and even invited students to her final Broadway performance, The Gin Game, in 2015. 

Tyson earned a Screen Actors Guild award, a Peabody award, an honorary Oscar, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, serving as stateswoman for Black people in the arts, and influencing actors as diverse as Denzel Washington, Vanessa L. Williams, Jurnee Smollett, and Viola Davis. Viola Davis penned the forward of her memoir Just As I Am, which published just two days before she passed.

When asked how she would like to be remembered in the same interview with Gayle King, Tyson stated, simply and beautifully, “I done my best.”

She absolutely did. And she continues to inspire others to do the same in their respective fields.
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