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Cicely Tyson Dies at Age 96

By Tanay Hudson

cicely tyson

GettyPASADENA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 16 (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Cicely Tyson, an iconic Black actress whose career spans over six decades, has died at the age of 96.

“I have managed Miss Tyson’s career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing,” her manager, Larry Thompson, said in a statement to Variety. “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 had one daughter, who she referred to as Joan in her memoir, Just As I Am. She was married twice, including to musician Miles Davis for seven years.

Tyson was born December 19, 1924 and was raised in the Harlem section of New York city.. At the age of 18-years-old she began modeling and then entered the world of acting in 1956. She became the first African-American to star in television drama on East Side/West Side in 1963. She was the the first African American actress to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Television Movie for her performance in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.  Tyson is one of the 11 Black actresses to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.

During her career, she received many accolades, nominations and honors. Tyson became a member of the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1977. She was also been honored by the Congress of Racial Equality and by the National Council of Negro Women. And in 2010, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People presented Tyson with its 95th Spingarn Medal — an award given to African Americans who have reached outstanding levels of achievement. In 2016, she was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.

She also received a Tony Award, for 2013’s The Trip to Bountiful, and a honorary Oscar in 2018. She has been nominated for an Emmy five times and received a Kennedy Center honor in 2015.

Tyson has starred in movies and television shows including Sounder, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Roots, Just An Sweet Old Song, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Why Did I Get Married Too?, How to Get Away With Murder, A Fall From Grace, Mission Impossible, House of Cards, Idlewild, Alex Cross, Madea’s Family Reunion and many more.

“The story in Sounder is a part of our history, a testimony to the strength of humankind,” Tyson told The New York Times in 1972. “Our whole Black heritage is that of struggle, pride and dignity. The Black woman has never been shown on the screen this way before.”

In 2015, Tyson opened up a bit about her marriage to the late Miles Davis. Despite allegations of abuse, she said spoke graciously of him during an interview on CBS This Morning With Gayle King.

During a chat with New York Times Magazine, she discussed the one time Davis physically assaulted her.

In a recent interview with NPR, she still spoke highly of Davis. “I wish people knew the Miles Davis that I knew,” she said. “Not only was he brilliantly talented, he was brilliantly sensitive. And that is the Miles Davis that people… don’t know that he was trying to protect.”

Social media is getting filled posts of people sharing their shock and sadness about Tyson’s death as well as recognizing how much of an icon she was.

“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!”

"Whatever good I have accomplished as an actress I believe came in direct proportion to my efforts to portray Black women who have made positive contributions to my heritage."