'An elder... now an ancestor': Groundbreaking star Cicely Tyson dies at age 96

By Zach Harper

Emmy and Tony Award-winning star Cicely Tyson has died at age 96. She had just published her memoir, Just As I Am, this week.

"With heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon," a statement issued through her manager, Larry Thompson, reads.

Larry went on to praise Cicely's career in the film industry, calling it a "privilege and blessing" to manage her for more than four decades.

"Cicely thought of her new memoir as a Christmas tree decorated with all the ornaments of her personal and professional life," he said. "Today she placed the last ornament, a Star, on the top of the tree."

Cicely was known for portraying several historical figures from the Civil Rights movement, such as Coretta Scott King and Harriet Tubman, and had said she wanted to use her career to advance racial justice in the United States.

"I saw that I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress," Cicely told The New York Times in 2013. "So I made my choice to use my career as a platform to address the issues of the race I was born into."

Cicely with Michelle Obama at the “Black Girls Rock!” BET Special in 2015. Photo: © D. Dipasupil/BET/Getty Images for BET

Hollywood stars and Civil Rights figures were quick to pay tribute to her after news of her death broke.

"Deeply saddened at the news of the death of Cicely Tyson," the Rev. Al Sharpton tweeted. "She was the ultimate actress, artist, trailblazer and model. Nobody possessed her grace, intellect and sensitivity. I’m blessed to have known her and bathed in her wisdom. May she rest in Power and Peace."

"An elder… now an ancestor," Bernice King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, tweeted. "What a vessel."

"This one hurts," Emmy Award-winning star Zendayatweeted. "Today we honour and celebrate the life of one of the greatest to ever do it. Thank you, Cicely Tyson. Rest in great power."

"She was an extraordinary person," producer Shonda Rhimes, who worked on How to Get Away with Murder with Cicely, shared. "And this is an extraordinary loss. She had so much to teach. And I still have so much to learn. I am grateful for every moment. Her power and grace will be with us forever."

"Incredibly sad to learn of the passing of Cicely Tyson," Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts tweeted. "She was a true icon in many ways. Whenever you were graced to be in her presence it was an unforgettable blessing. My heart goes out to her family and loved ones."

Born in Harlem, New York in 1924, Cicely began her career as a model after being discovered by Ebony magazine. She began acting in the 1950s, and her work was groundbreaking from the start. With her role in East Side/West Side, she became the first Black American to star in a TV drama. Her roles were not limited to the screen, either – she achieved critical acclaim for her work on Broadway with Maya Angelou and James Earl Jones.

In the 1960s, she began dating jazz legend Miles Davis. The two had a rocky relationship, breaking up in 1967 and later reuniting more than a decade later. They eventually married in 1981, but divorced eight years later.

It was Sounder that really propelled Cicely to star status in the 1970s. The film, which was an adaptation of William H. Armstrong’s award-winning novel of the same name, garnered her Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations.

Her next role in TV film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, she played a former slave, who tells a journalist about her life after she is arrested for using a segregated water fountain on her 110th birthday.

Cicely Tyson with her Emmys for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in 1974. Photo: © Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

She won two Emmy Awards the performance, and her acting furthered the conversation on Civil Rights in the United States at the time. With her win, she also became the first Black woman to win a lead actress Emmy Award.

She went on to achieve more critical success for her work on the miniseries Roots, along with her portrayal of Civil Rights leader, LGBTQ+ advocate and anti-apartheid activist Coretta, who was also Martin Luther King Jr.'s wife.

Cicely with her Tony Award for her performance in The Trip to Bountiful in 2013. Photo: © Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Tony Awards Productions

Later in her life, she continued to take home awards for her work. In 2013, at age 88, she received a Tony Award for her performance in The Trip to Bountiful. At the time, she was the oldest person to ever win a Tony. Younger readers will also likely remember her from her work on How to Get Away with Murder, where she played the mother of Annalise Keating (Viola Davis).

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