Cicely Tyson, Trailblazer for Black Women in Movies, Dies at 96

Cicely Tyson, an actor who smashed stereotypes of Black women, received an Oscar nomination for “Sounder” and won three Emmy awards, has died. She was 96.

She died Thursday, the Associated Press reported, citing a family statement released by her manager Larry Thompson. No cause was given.

Tyson was best known for a pair of roles as strong southern women -- the mother of a boy in search of his father in 1972’s “Sounder,” and an ex-slave in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” a 1974 television movie. She won two Emmy awards for her portrayal of Pittman from teenager to centenarian, and a third for the 1994 TV miniseries “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.”

Cicely Tyson, Trailblazer for Black Women in Movies, Dies at 96

Tyson was outspoken on civil rights and her experiences in the entertainment industry, frequently appearing on magazine covers, including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. A fashion icon, she often wore an Afro or cornrows, challenging a beauty standard that valued straight hair.

She also turned down parts she saw as Black stereotypes. “I wait for roles -- first, to be written for a woman, then, to be written for a Black woman,” Tyson said, according to a 1997 article in the Bergen (New Jersey) Record. “And then I have the audacity to be selective about the kinds of roles I play. I’ve really got three strikes against me. So, aren’t you amazed I’m still here?”

Media Savvy

Tyson broke out in 1961, in a two-year run off-Broadway in Jean Genet’s “The Blacks.” When that ended, she landed a part in “East Side/West Side,” one of the first continuing roles for a Black actor in a prime-time TV drama.

Cicely Tyson, Trailblazer for Black Women in Movies, Dies at 96

The series lasted a single season, long enough to help popularize the “natural,” Tyson’s hairstyle on the show, that later became known as the Afro. According to a 1974 story in People magazine, she adopted the style just before the broadcast because the program aired live and she couldn’t be fired.

More recently, Tyson had roles in the 2011 film “The Help” and a 2014 TV movie version of “The Trip to Bountiful.” In the latter she reprised her star turn in a 2013 Broadway revival of the play by Horton Foote, winning a Tony award for lead actress.

In 2015, Tyson guest-starred on the TV series “How to Get Away with Murder.” She also performed in “The Gin Game” opposite James Earl Jones.

Early Life

Tyson was born in New York on Dec. 19, 1924, according to public records. She was reticent about disclosing her age and often was reported to be a decade younger.

She was the daughter of William and Theodosia Tyson, immigrants from the Caribbean island of Nevis. Her father struggled to make a living painting houses and selling produce from a pushcart, while her mother cleaned houses. Her parents divorced when she was a child and she lived with her mother.

After graduating from high school, Tyson worked as a secretary but said she hated it, according to a 1974 story in Ebony. She described quitting in dramatic fashion, after loudly announcing, “I know that God did not put me on the face of this earth to bang on a typewriter for the rest of my life!”

In the early 1950s, she worked as a fashion model and studied acting. She found work in TV and film but declined to participate in the blaxploitation movies of the early 1970s.

Critic’s Review

“The lesser of two evils for me is to wait,” Tyson said, according to the People story. She never found another role equal to her lead in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” which had inspired critic Rex Reed to praise her as “a great actress who, quite incidentally, happens also to be Black.”

Instead she took character roles, including Binta, the mother of warrior Kunta Kinte in the 1977 TV miniseries “Roots.” She played Coretta Scott King in the miniseries “King,” Harriet Tubman in the miniseries “A Woman Called Moses” and the cafe cook Sipsey in the 1991 film “Fried Green Tomatoes.”

Tyson tended to keep her personal life private but was open in interviews about jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. She married him in 1981 after many years of “ups and downs,” Tyson told Ebony. They divorced in 1988. She married and divorced actor Billy Dee Williams in 1957.

In 2015, Tyson was named a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

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