Cicely Tyson, the iconic actress who starred in Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and served as a pioneer for Black actresses, has died at the age of 96. The news was announced on Thursday, January 27 by Tyson’s longtime manager, Larry Thompson, and comes just two days after the release of Tyson’s memoir, Just As I Am. “I have managed Miss Tyson’s career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing,” Thompson said in a statement. “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.”
The Emmy, Tony, and Honorary Oscar-winning actress blazed a trail for Black actresses over the course of her storied and historic career, which spanned over seven decades. Tyson was born in East Harlem, New York in 1924 to parents who immigrated from Nevis in the West Indies. She was discovered by a photographer for Ebony magazine and worked as a model appearing in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar before transitioning to acting, landing her first role in the NBC television series Frontiers of Faith in 1951. Tyson made her film debut in 1957’s 12 Angry Men and would go on to carve out a career for herself marked by her commitment to playing strong, fully-realized characters, refusing to play roles that she thought were demeaning to Black women. After a brief hiatus from the film industry in the late 60s, Tyson returned to Hollywood in 1972 starring as Rebecca Morgan in the acclaimed film Sounder, earned Tyson an Oscar-nomination for Best Actress in 1973.
Tyson would go on to make history on the small screen, becoming the first Black actress to win a Primetime Emmy for her work in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in 1974. Over the course of her career, Tyson would earn 16 career Emmy nominations, including 5 in a row for her work as Ophelia Harkness in How To Get Away With Murder, with her most recent nomination coming in 2020. Tyson was also no stranger to the stage, appearing on Broadway throughout the late 60s during her Hollywood hiatus, and winning a Tony Award for her work in A Trip to Bountiful in 2013. In her later years, Tyson became the true embodiment of a living legend, often appearing dressed to the nines at events like Aretha Franklin’s funeral and the 2018 Academy Awards where she became the first Black actress to receive an Honorary Oscar. With grace and poise, Tyson served as a sterling example of the indomitable spirit and courageousness of the Black men and women who paved the way for younger generations. RIP.