Legendary actress Cicely Tyson has passed away at age 96. Her memoir, Just As I Am: A Memoir, was just released on January 26. 

Tyson was discovered by a fashion photographer for EBONY magazine, where she began her work as a model. Her first acting role was on the NBC series Frontiers of Faith in 1951. From there, her career spanned over 70 years.

As noted by Variety, Tyson refused to take on roles that depicted negative stereotypes of the Black experience or other roles she thought demeaning to Black women. Instead, she chose roles that documented history or showcased Black life in culture in its essence.

Here’s a look at some of her most notable roles: 

Sounder (1972)

Set during the Great Depression in the South, Tyson starred as Rebecca, the wife of a Black man captured by the police while stealing dog food to feed their family. The family’s dog, Sounder, runs away but Rebecca’s son never gives up hope that Sounder will return or that his father will be freed. She was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for her performance. 

Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)

Beginning during the racial turmoil of the 1960s in the segregated south of Louisiana, Tyson stars as 110-year-old former enslaved person, Jane Pittman. Pittman grants an interview to a persistent journalist to share her remarkable life story of an orphan turned emancipated slave. She received two Emmy wins for the role: Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress – Miniseries or a Movie and the Emmy Award for Actress of the Year – Special.

Roots (1977)

Based on the famed family account of Alex Haley, Roots tells the story of Kunta Kinte, who is sold into the slave trade after being abducted from his African village and is taken to the United States. Tyson starred as Kunta’s mother. For the role, she was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress – Miniseries or a Movie.

How To Get Away With Murder 

Tyson starred as the mother of Annalise Keating, Ophelia Harkness in How to Get Away with Murder. Davis handpicked Tyson to play her mother. Her final appearance on the show came in 2020 with the last six episodes. Tyson told Essence of the casting choice: “When I was told that Viola Davis wanted for me to play her mother in her television series, How To Get Away With Murder, I went straight to bed,” recalled Tyson. “I did not really know Viola at the time, as I had only met her briefly before at a reading for The Help. I had not seen nor heard from her after that until her invitation.”

Tyson chose to accept the role because of her fascination with the mother-daughter dynamic. “I have long been fascinated with the relationships that exist between mothers and daughters and wondered why these relationships were not explored on-screen in the same way that father and son relationships have been explored,” Tyson explained. “I was fascinated by the possibility of delving into the many complex issues that exist in mother and daughter relationships.” 

For her role, she was nominated five times for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series, with four of these nominations being consecutive.


Rest in power, Ms. Tyson.