Beloved actress, model and arts philanthropist Cicely Tyson passed away on Thursday at 96 years old, her manager Larry Thompson announced this week.
In a statement, Thompson told Variety that it has been an honor to work with her through the years and that her memoir, Just As I Am, which was released on Tuesday, was considered by Tyson to be one of the more personal treasures she’s shared with the world.
“I have managed Miss Tyson’s career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing,” Thompson said. “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.”
Tyson became the first Black woman to win an Emmy Award as a lead actress for her remarkable performance as a woman aging from 23 to 110, from the 1850s to the civil rights era, in the 1974 CBS TV film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
She would go on to play several Black historical figures like civil rights activist Coretta Scott King, educator Marva Collins and abolitionist Harriet Tubman. She played the mother of Kunta Kinte in the 1977 ABC miniseries Roots and the role of Rosa Parks’ mother in the 2002 film The Rosa Parks Story.
"I saw that I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress. So I made the choice to use my career as a platform to address the issues of the race I was born into," Tyson told The New York Times in 2013.
Several fans and celebrities posted tributes of the late legend on their social media accounts.
Actor Mehcad Brooks, who starred in Tyler Perry’s A Fall From Grace with Tyson, wrote on Thursday that working alongside her was an honor that he cherishes among his most favorite.
“What an honor to have worked with you and known you. Not sure if my mother had ever been prouder than that. Your light will always be remembered, revered and cherished. Good night Sweet Queen. May your transition to the next realm be joyous, harmonic and peaceful,” he wrote.
Producer and movie writer Sidra Smith posted that Tyson was her magical godmother that she loves with “no bounds.”
“My Fairy Godmother is with the lord. ????❤️????I will forever hold the moments we shared close to my heart and soul. #cicelytyson The love I have for you, has no bounds. ????❤️ Love you for eternity and beyond. ❤️ Thank you for loving me unconditionally. ❤️????????❤️,” she wrote.
On Twitter, author and activist Marc Lamont Hill credited Tyson as a genius and legend, who earned her place among the great artists and entertainers of our time.
“Stunned to hear that Cicely Tyson had joined the ancestors,” he began. “Words like 'trailblazer,' 'genius,' and 'legend' are shamefully insufficient when describing Ms. Tyson. May she rest in perfect peace.”
Stunned to hear that Cicely Tyson had joined the ancestors. Words like “trailblazer,” “genius,” and “legend” are shamefully insufficient when describing Ms. Tyson. May she rest in perfect peace.
— Marc Lamont Hill (@marclamonthill) January 29, 2021
Broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien recalled how Tyson commanded the respect and admiration of people of all ages while on the sets of films.
“So many great stories about Cicely Tyson! Whew: that lady was amazing. While shooting a doc on her in Spanish Harlem—people kept stopping their cars! In the street! To hop out and say hi! Old people. Teenagers. Middle aged fans. “Ciss-el-lee” they’d chant as she’d walk by!” O’Brien shared.
So many great stories about Cicely Tyson! Whew: that lady was amazing. While shooting a doc on her in Spanish Harlem—people kept stopping their cars! In the street! To hop out and say hi! Old people. Teenagers. Middle aged fans. “Ciss-el-lee” they’d chant as she’d walk by!
— Soledad O'Brien (@soledadobrien) January 29, 2021
In 2016, former President Barack Obama awarded Tyson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.
"In her long and extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson has not only exceeded as an actor, she has shaped the course of history," Obama began, according to The Hollywood Reporter. "Cicely was never the likeliest of Hollywood stars, but once she got her education and broke into the business, Cicely made a conscious decision not just to say lines, but to speak out. 'I would not accept roles,' she said, 'unless they projected us, particularly women, in a realistic light and dealt with us as human beings.'
Tyson was married to jazz icon Miles Davis from 1981 until they divorced in 1988. According to the Hollywood Reporter, they had the wedding at Bill Cosby’s house, who was also the best man and gave away the bride.
The 96-year-old was very passionate about providing opportunities to the next generation of creatives. She was a co-founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and served as a board member of the American Film Institute from 1973 to 1978, according to The Reporter. The Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts in New Jersey is also dedicated in her honor.
Ahead of the release of her memoir, Tyson chatted with NPR to look back on her career. Earlier this week, she revealed that she found her calling in acting through watching and critically observing the world around her.
“Well, it happened because I learned that I could speak through other people. I was a very shy child. I was an observer. I would sit and observe and listen and watch people's actions in order to understand what they were. I wanted to know what prompted them to say and do the things that they did,” Tyson said.