Today we honor the legacy of icon Cicely Tyson who passed away yesterday afternoon at age 96. Her on-screen performances and off-screen words of wisdom have inspired several generations. Tyson was a trailblazer who opened doors for Black women in the performing arts. Her commitment to playing characters of depth and dignity shattered stereotypes and spoke to girls and women who didn’t see themselves adequately represented in the media.
Tyson’s career began at EBONY. She was discovered by an EBONY fashion editor and successfully launched her career as a model before scoring her first acting role in 1951 on the NBC series Frontiers of Faith. She played a leading role in East Side/West Side, making history as the first African American to star in a television drama. Her career really took off when she played Rebecca Morgan in the film Sounder. Her performance earned her Best Actress nominations at both the Academy and Golden Globe Awards. In addition to the small and big screen, Tyson acted in several theater productions as well. Her theater work did not go unnoticed—she was a recipient of the Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critics Awards.
Tyson has over 94 IMDB credits, a testament to her robust skill and her longevity as an actress. During her career, which spanned more than seven decades, she received three Emmy Awards, four Black Reel Awards, one Screen Actors Guild Award, one Tony Award, an honorary Academy Award, and a Peabody Award. She is recognized in the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, the American Theater Hall of Fame, and the Television Academy’s Hall of Fame. In 2015, she was named a Kennedy Center honoree—a prestigious honor for performers who have made a lifetime of contributions to American culture.
Her impact on our nation was noticed by institutions outside of the performing arts too. Tyson received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP in 2010. In 2016, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, which is considered the highest civilian honor. Cicely Tyson’s impact will continue to echo throughout history. She was one of those rare people who altered the fabric of the United States’ culture so that we can all fit more comfortably.
Learn more lessons from Cicely Tyson by checking out her memoir Just As I Am, published earlier this week.