Grace, Class, and Legendary Elegance: Tribute to Cicely Tyson

“The moment anyone tries to demean or degrade you in any way, you have to know how great you are. Nobody would bother to beat you down if you were not a threat.” ~Cicely Tyson

Cicely Tyson flanked by Michelle and Barack Obama standing
President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden greet Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients and their guests in the Blue Room prior to the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Nov. 22, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

On January 28, 2021, critically acclaimed actress, model, and activist Cicely Tyson passed away at the age of 96 in Harlem, New York City.  Her refusal to play negative depictions of Black women, made Ms. Tyson one of the most impactful and influential actors of our time. Throughout her nearly seventy year career, Ms. Tyson won several awards and received numerous honors. In 1973, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her heartful portrayal of a sharecropper’s wife in Sounder, and in 2018, received the Academy’s Honorary Award. Ms. Tyson won an Emmy Award for Best Lead Actress in a Drama for her role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)and in 1994, she received the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Special Award for the Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. She also won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a play for The Trip to Bountiful in 2013. In 2020, Ms. Tyson won a Peabody Award and won a Television Hall of Fame Award. She was an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, received several honorary degrees, and in 2009, the Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts was named in her honor. Cicely Tyson’s memoir Just As I Am, was released on January 26, 2021.

Cicely Tyson posing with Ronald and Nancy Reagan at the Kennedy Center
President Reagan and Nancy Reagan posing with Cicely Tyson at a performance by Harlem Dance Theatre at Kennedy Center, Feb 10, 1981 (NAID 75856659)
Cicely Tyson in graduation gown getting a kiss on the cheeck from Barack Obama
President Barack Obama congratulates Cicely Tyson on her honorary degree at the Howard University class of 2016 commencement ceremony at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Saturday, May 7, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Cicely Tyson was born on December 9, 1924, in Harlem, New York. She was the youngest of three children of West Indian immigrants from Nevis. Ms. Tyson was discovered by an Ebony magazine photographer, which launched her career as a fashion model. In 1951, she had a small role in the television show Frontiers of Faith that began her long and successful acting career. She was an inspiration who showcased the natural beauty of Black women and she uplifted the African American community with her selection of positive roles. Ms. Tyson also was a co-founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Miles Davis and Cicely Tyson in a receiving line shaking hands with Ronald Reagan
Photo Op. President Reagan greeting musician Miles Davis and actress Cicely Tyson from the Washington Charities Dinner in the Ground Floor Corridor, Jun 15, 1984 (NAID 75853451)

Cicely Tyson selected pioneering roles that showed the beauty of African Americans. A select few of her most memorable movie roles included: The River Niger (1976), A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich (1978), Bustin’ Loose (1981), Hoodlum (1997), The Help (2011), and A Fall from Grace (2020). Ms. Tyson shined on the small screen with roles on the Guiding Light, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Emergency!, Roots, A Woman Called Moses, Mama Flora’s Family, A Lesson Before Dying, The Women of Brewster Place, and How to Get Away with Murder. She also left her mark in the theatre with praiseworthy roles in The Blacks: A Clown Show, Trumpets of the Lord, and The Gin Game. In 2016, Cicely Tyson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama for her pioneering work in the film and television industries.

Barack Obama stands behind Cicely Tyson as he puts the Presidential Medal of Freedom around her neck
President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Cicely Tyson during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Nov. 22, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Cicely Tyson and Miles Davis in a receiving line shaking hands with Nancy Reagan
Nancy Reagan shakes hands with Cicely Tyson and President Reagan shakes hands with Miles Davis at a reception held in the blur in honor of the Kennedy Center Honorees and their guests in Blue room, Dec 7, 1986 (NAID 75855191)

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