Cicely Tyson, Iconic ‘Sounder’ and ‘The Help’ Actress, Dies at 96

The incomparable actress vowed only to portray strong, positive and realistic images of Black women

cicely tyson
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Cicely Tyson, the iconic and incomparable screen and stage actress and Black American trailblazer, died on Thursday. She was 96.

Tyson, whose acting career spanned more than six decades, broke ground as a Black actress who resolved only to portray strong, positive and realistic images of Black women on screen. Her convictions resulted in astonishing performances in projects such as the films “Sounder” and “The Help,” the TV movie “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” and the 2013 Broadway production of “The Trip to Bountiful,” for which she won the Tony.

Tyson earned an Academy Award best actress nomination for “Sounder” in 1973. The following year she won a best lead actress and a special outstanding actress of the year Emmy for “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” She later one an Emmy for the 1994 miniseries “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” and five more nominations, including one just last year for playing the mother of Viola Davis’ character in the ABC drama “How to Get Away With Murder.”

And for all of her life’s accomplishments, Tyson’s been recognized with a Kennedy Center honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an honorary Oscar and in 2018 was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame, among many other awards and accomplishments.

“In her long and extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson has not only exceeded as an actor, she has shaped the course of history,” President Barack Obama said during the 2016 ceremony for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “Cicely made a conscious decision not just to say lines, but to speak out. Cicely’s convictions and grace have helped for us to see the dignity of every beautiful member of the American family — and, she’s just gorgeous.”

Tyson’s death comes just two days after the publication of her memoir, “Just as I Am.”

Born in Harlem, New York in 1924 to hardworking religious immigrants from the West Indies, Tyson wasn’t even allowed to go to the movies growing up.

Tyson began her storied career as a model in New York City, gracing the covers of magazines such as Ebony, Jet, Harper Bazaar and Vogue. Tyson said during an appearance on Oprah’s Master Class that her mother not only didn’t approve of her career path, but told Tyson she wouldn’t be allowed to live under her house if she continued. The two didn’t speak for nearly three years, until Tyson invited her mother to her stage debut in “Dark of the Moon” at a Harlem YMCA.

When asked in 2018 whether she would ever retire, Tyson told Time Magazine: “And do what? The reason why I have been in this universe as long as I have been is because he’s not ready for me. When I’ve completed my job, he’ll take me away.”