Legendary, award winning actress, Cicely Tyson, 96, died on Jan. 28. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
mgreen@afro.com

Cicely Tyson, 96, know n for her iconic roles such Coretta Scott King, Binta in the 1977 series “Roots,” and in the title role of “The Autobiography of Jane Pittman,” for which she received the Primetime Emmy Award for Actress of the Year, died on Jan. 28.

Tyson, with her small, but regal stature and “Black don’t crack beauty,” historically played roles far younger than her years and worked as a model and actress on stage, film and television into her 90s. 

Born in Harlem on Dec. 19, 1924, to two West Indian immigrants, Tyson went on to break barriers as the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Best Actress as Jane Pittman. In 2013, Tyson won a Tony for Best Actress in a Play when she brought to life the role of Miss Carrie Watts in “The Trip to Bountiful.”  Further, in 2018, 45 years after her nomination for her performance in “Sounder,” Tyson became the first Black woman to receive an honorary Oscar when the Board of Governors unanimously voted to honor her with the prestigious and groundbreaking award.

In a time where Black women were known to play mammies and maids, Tyson was an artist activist.  President Barack Obama noted Tyson’s arts advocacy when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

“‘I would not accept roles,’ she said, ‘unless they projected us, particularly women, in a realistic light, dealt with us as human beings,’” Obama said when awarding Tyson the Medal of Honor. “‘And from Sounder,’ to ‘The Trip to Bountiful,’ to ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,’ Cicely’s convictions and grace have helped for us to see the dignity of every single beautiful member of the American family.”

One day before her death, Tyson appeared on “Live with Kelly and Ryan,” and the artist further discussed her activism in taking certain roles, such as when Gloria Foster turned down the lead in “Sounders,” because the role did not pay enough. 

Tyson said working was never about the money. “I worked because of issues that I wish to address about myself and my race as a Black woman.”

“And she’s just gorgeous. Yes, she is,” the former President Obama added light-heartedly.

Tyson’s beauty, that Obama and so many others talked about, shined from outside in. 

Ryan Seacrest, the Wednesday before her death, asked about Tyson’s key to longevity and timeless beauty.

“Well one thing I never did was I never smoked, I never drank, and I didn’t do drugs,” she explained on “Live with Kelly and Ryan.”  “And when Martin Luther King was assassinated, I was so stunned by that, that I became a vegetarian and I’ve been that most of my life.”

Congressman Kweisi Mfume and actress Cicely Tyson. (Courtesy Photo)

A humble icon that shined in a room full of stars, this reporter met Tyson once in a Bahamian airport in 2007.  There were several celebrities present as there was an opening to a new wing of the hotel Atlantis, and in the airport were other models, actors and Hollywood greats such as Spike Lee.  As a young aspiring actress, my father encouraged me to speak to Tyson and so he escorted me and introduced me to the legendary great.  She told my father that she wanted to hear directly from me, and eventually gave me advice to speak up for myself, “keep pushing,” and “never give up,” words that resonate to this day- like phrases from a strong, loving grandmother.

Celebrities took to social media to mourn the icons passing.  Many, like this reporter, felt and remarked on the familial feeling of love, humility and encouragement Tyson exuded and offered to others.  Tyler Perry, who worked with Tyson on such films such as “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” and “Madea’s Family Reunion,” was extremely transparent in his deep pain for the loss of the great actress, who he viewed as a wiser, maternal figure.

“I was sitting at the table working when I got this overwhelming feeling to watch Miss Jane Pittman.  I hadn’t seen the movie in years.  I didn’t even understand the feeling to turn it on, but I did anyway.  Not 12 minutes into the movie my phone rang.  It was Oprah calling to tell me that Cicely had died.  This one brought me to my knees!  She was the grandmother I never had and the wisdom tree that I could always sit under to fill my cup,” Perry wrote on Instagram.  “My heart breaks in one beat, while celebrating her life in the next. To think that she lived for 96 years and I got to be a part of the last 16 brings me great joy.  She called me son.  Well, today your son grieves your loss and will miss our long talks, your laughter from your belly and your very presence.”

Maryland Congressman Kweisi Mfume remembered the late actress in a statement to the AFRO.

“Thank you Cicely for the dignity of purpose you allowed me to share.  You were always such a talented class act. Your grace and your radiant smile are gifts that I will forever treasure,” said Rep. Kwesi Mfume.

Perry remembered Tyson as “a queen.”

“Always so regal, always so classy, always a lady, always a queen,” 

Micha Green

AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor