Cicely Louise Tyson (December 19, 1924 – January 28, 2021) was an American actress. In a career which spanned more than seven decades in film, television and theatre, she became known for her portrayal of strong African-American women.  Tyson received  various awards including three Emmy Awards, a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Tony Award, an Honorary Academy Award, and a Peabody Award.
Having appeared in minor film and television roles early in her career, Tyson garnered widespread attention and critical acclaim for her performance as Rebecca Morgan in
(1972); she was nominated for both the Sounder Academy Award for Best Actress and Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama for her work in the film. Tyson's portrayal of the title role in the 1974 television film based on the 1971 The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, novel of the same name by Ernest J. Gaines, won her further praise; among other accolades, the role won her two Emmy Awards and a nomination for a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. She received another Emmy Award nomination for her role as Binta in the acclaimed series (1977).
Tyson continued to act on film and television in the 21st century in projects such as
(1991), Fried Green Tomatoes (1999), A Lesson Before Dying , Because of Winn-Dixie (both 2005), Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2011), The Help (2014) and The Trip to Bountiful (2017). She also played the recurring role of Ophelia Harkness in the Last Flag Flying ABC legal drama TV series since the show's inception in 2014, for which she was nominated for the How to Get Away With Murder Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series five times.
In addition to her screen career, Tyson appeared in various theater productions. She received a Vernon Rice Award in 1962 for her Off-Broadway performance in
. Tyson also starred as Carrie Watts in the Moon on a Rainbow Shawl Broadway play , winning the The Trip to Bountiful Tony Award, the Outer Critics Award, and the Drama Desk Award for Best Actress in a Play in 2013. She returned to Broadway in the 2016 revival of starring opposite The Gin Game James Earl Jones. Tyson was named a Kennedy Center honoree in 2015. In November 2016, Tyson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest civilian honor in the United States. In 2020, she was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.
Tyson was born in
the Bronx, New York City, but soon relocated with her family to East Harlem. She was one of three children born to Fredericka (Huggins) Tyson, a domestic worker, and William Augustine Tyson, who worked as a carpenter and painter.   Her parents were immigrants from  Nevis in the West Indies.  Her father arrived in New York City at age 21 and was processed at  Ellis Island on August 4, 1919.
Tyson grew up in a religious atmosphere. She sang in the choir and attended prayer meetings at an Episcopal church in
East Harlem. Tyson's mother was opposed to her becoming an actress and would not speak to her for a time. She changed her mind when she saw Cicely appear on stage.
Tyson was discovered by a photographer for
magazine and became a successful fashion model. Her first acting role was a Ebony bit part in the 1956 film Carib Gold and she first appeared onstage in  Vinnette Carroll's production of at the Dark of the Moon Harlem YMCA in 1958. Tyson had small roles in the 1959 films  and Odds Against Tomorrow , as well as the 1960 comedy, The Last Angry Man Who Was That Lady?  1n 1961, she made her television debut in the  NBC series . Frontiers of Faith
In the early 1960s, Tyson appeared in the original cast of French playwright
Jean Genet's She played the role of Stephanie Virtue Secret-Rose Diop; other notable cast members included The Blacks. Maya Angelou, James Earl Jones, Godfrey Cambridge, Louis Gossett Jr., and Charles Gordone. The show was the longest running off-Broadway non-musical of the decade, running for 1,408 performances.  She won the 1961-1962 Vernon Rice Award (later known as the  Drama Desk Award) for her performance in another off-Broadway production, . Moon on a Rainbow Shawl 
Tyson, who once worked for a social services agency, was spotted by producer
David Susskind in The Blacks and in Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, and was cast for a role in the CBS TV series (1963–1964), playing the East Side/West Side secretary of a social worker played by George C. Scott. She was at the time the only African-American regular member of a TV cast,   The show was noted for its treatment of social issues, and one of its episodes, on an African-American couple in  Harlem (played by James Earl Jones and Diana Sands), was blacked out in Atlanta and Shreveport, Louisiana.
In the mid-1960s she had a recurring role in the soap opera
. The Guiding Light She appeared with  Sammy Davis Jr. in the film (1966) A Man Called Adam  and had a small role in the film version of  (1967) based on the The Comedians Graham Greene novel. In 1968 Tyson had a featured role in  . The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
In 1972, Tyson played the role of Rebecca Morgan in the film
. She was nominated for both the Sounder Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for her work in Sounder, and also won the  NSFC Best Actress and NBR Best Actress Awards. 
In 1974, Tyson played the title role in the television film
Tyson's portrayal of a centenarian black woman's life from slavery until her death before the The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Civil rights movement won her a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress – Miniseries or a Movie and an Emmy Award for Actress of the Year – Special. Tyson was also nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her work in this television film.
Tyson's television roles included: Binta in the 1977 miniseries
, for which she was nominated for a Roots Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress – Miniseries or a Movie; Coretta Scott King in the 1978 miniseries , for which she was nominated for a King Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress – Miniseries or a Movie; Marva Collins in the 1981 television film , for which she received an The Marva Collins Story NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress – Miniseries or a Movie; and Muriel in the 1986 television film  , for which she received an Samaritan: The Mitch Snyder Story NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special.
In 1989, Tyson appeared in the television miniseries
The Women of Brewster Place. In 1991, Tyson appeared in  as Sipsey. Fried Green Tomatoes In the 1994–95 television series  Tyson portrayed a civil rights activist and attorney named Carrie Grace Battle, a character she modeled after Sweet Justice, Washington, D.C. civil rights and criminal defense lawyer Dovey Johnson Roundtree. Her other notable film roles include the dramas  (1997) and Hoodlum (2005), and the television films Diary of a Mad Black Woman (1994) (for which she received her third Emmy Award) and Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1999). A Lesson Before Dying In 2005, Tyson co-starred in  Because of Winn-Dixie.
In 2010, Tyson appeared in
and narrated the Why Did I Get Married Too? Paul Robeson Award-winning documentary Up from the Bottoms: The Search for the American Dream. In 2011, Tyson appeared in her first music video in Willow Smith's 21st Century Girl. That same year, she played Constantine Jefferson, a maid in Jackson, Mississippi, in the critically acclaimed period drama The Help. Set in the backdrop of the  Civil Rights Movement, the film won the Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for Best Acting Ensemble and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. 
67th Tony Awards, on June 9, 2013, Tyson won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her performance as Miss Carrie Watts in Upon winning, the 88-year-old actress became the oldest recipient of the Best Actress Tony Award. The Trip to Bountiful.  She also won the  Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Play and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Actress in a Play for the role. 
In 2013, Tyson played a supporting role in the horror film
The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia. Beginning in 2014, Tyson guest-starred on  as Ophelia Harkness, the mother of main character How to Get Away with Murder Annalise Keating ( Viola Davis); for this role, she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series in 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020.
In 2020, she starred in the popular movie
which was featured on A Fall From Grace Netflix.
Tyson had a daughter when she was 17 years old.
At the age of 18, Tyson married Kenneth Franklin on December 27, 1942.  According to her divorce decree, her husband abandoned her after less than eighteen months of marriage. The marriage was formally dissolved in 1956.  
Tyson began dating
jazz trumpeter Miles Davis in the 1960s when he was in the process of divorcing dancer Frances Davis. Davis used a photo of Tyson for his 1967 album,  . Davis told the press in 1967 that he intended to marry Tyson in March 1968 after his divorce was finalized, Sorcerer but instead he married singer  Betty Davis that September.
Tyson and Davis rekindled their relationship in 1978. They were married on November 26, 1981, in a ceremony conducted by Atlanta mayor
Andrew Young at the home of actor Bill Cosby. Their marriage was tumultuous due to Davis' volatile temper and infidelity. Davis credited Tyson with saving his life and helping him overcome his  cocaine addiction. They resided in  Malibu, California, and New York City, until she filed for divorce in 1988. Their  divorce was finalized in 1989, two years before Davis died in 1991.
Tyson was godmother to the singer
Lenny Kravitz, having been friends with his mother, actress Roxie Roker, as well as to Denzel Washington's daughter Katia and Tyler Perry's son Aman.
Tyson was an honorary member of
Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She was a member of the  Abyssinian Baptist Church of New York. She was a  vegetarian. She was also a first-cousin of  Louis Farrakhan, a longtime leader of the Nation of Islam.
Just as I Am, was published on January 26, 2021, and she promoted the book during the last weeks of her life. When she was asked how she wanted to be remembered in an interview with  Gayle King, Tyson said, "I've done my best. That's all."
Tyson died on January 28, 2021, at the age of 96.
Her funeral was held February 16 at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, and was attended by  Tyler Perry, her godson Lenny Kravitz, and Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Awards and honours
Cicely Tyson is the recipient of numerous accolades, including an
Academy Honorary Award, three Emmy Awards, and a Tony Award. Tyson has won three Primetime Emmy Awards for her work in television winning for, (1974), and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1994). She won the Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play her performance in in 2014. Tyson won her The Trip to Bountiful Honorary Academy Award in 2018 with the inscription reading, ""Whose unforgettable performances and personal integrity have inspired generations of filmmakers, actors and audiences."
Tyson has also received various honours for her lifetime achievement as a groundbreaking artist. In 2015, she received a
Kennedy Center Honor. In 2016 she was bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. In 2020, she received a Career Achievement Peabody Award. That same year she was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.
In 1977, Tyson was inducted into the
Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. In 1980, she received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement. In 1982, Tyson was awarded the  Women in Film Crystal Award. The award is given to outstanding women who, through their endurance and the excellence of their work, have helped to expand the role of women within the entertainment industry. In 1988, Tyson received a  Candace Award for Distinguished Service from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. In 1997, she received a star on the  Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 2005, Tyson was honored at
Oprah Winfrey's Legends Ball. She was also honored by the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the National Council of Negro Women.  Tyson was awarded the  NAACP's 2010 Spingarn Medal for her contribution to the entertainment industry, her modeling career, and her support of civil rights.   Tyson was a recipient of the  Kennedy Center Honors in 2015. She was awarded the United States' highest civilian honor, the  Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama in November 2016. In September 2018, the  Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that Tyson would receive an Academy Honorary Award. On November 18, 2018, Tyson became the first African-American woman to receive an honorary Oscar.  In 2018, Tyson was inducted into the  American Theater Hall of Fame. One of 12 soundstages was named after Tyson in her honor at  Tyler Perry Studios. She was chosen to be inducted into the Television Academy's Hall of Fame in 2020. In 2022, she was posthumously inducted into the  Black Music & Entertainment Walk of Fame in 2022.
Tyson received honorary degrees from
Clark Atlanta University,  Columbia University;  Howard University; and  Morehouse College, an all-male historically black college. The  Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts, a magnet school in East Orange, New Jersey, was named after her in 2009.
^ At the time of her death, numerous sources, most notably the New York Times, listed Tyson's date of birth as December 18, 1924. Indeed it was the Times, back in 2013, that had first broken the story, confirmed by Tyson, that the actress was in fact 88 years old, and thus born in December 1924 rather than 1933 as had been previously reported.
As Tyson explained in her 2021 memoir, "1933" was no mistake, but rather a prime example of the age-shaving initiated by her onetime manager and perpetuated by Tyson with the express intent of bypassing the pervasive age discrimination facing women in the industry. That said, no matter how many  years mysteriously vanished along the way, the month and day of her birth, as cited in media accounts throughout Tyson's career, had remained a constant at December 19. By contrast, the only source for the Times' 12/18 date seems to be a 1935 document, the Petition for Naturalization filed by Cicely's father William Augustine Tyson on July 31 of that year. The problem is that by that time, again as recounted in the 2021 memoir, it had been at least seven months—and perhaps as many as 10—since Mr. Tyson actually resided with his wife and children. The previous fall, no longer willing to put up with William's persistent and unrepentant adultery (not to mention his hair-trigger temper when confronted regarding this behavior), Fredericka Tyson had gathered their three children plus essential belongings and promptly moved to a new address, where her husband was welcome to visit—so as not to deprive their children of a father altogether—but no more than that.  (Just how deep a rift had been opened up between the two may perhaps be gleaned from the 1940 U.S. Census entry for the Tyson family, now minus William, wherein all four remaining Tysons have retroactively been 'reborn' in South Carolina.  ) And so, coming some seven to 10 months after their informal separation, with his attention presumably even more divided than before, a slight lack of precision regarding his eldest daughter's birth date should not come as too great a surprise. 
"Petition for Naturalization". . U.S District Court Naturalization Records, 1824–1946. July 31, 1935. FamilySearch.org Cecily, Dec. 18, 1924
^ a b
"United States Census, 1940; New York City, Manhattan, Assembly District 18". . Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. April 3, 1940. FamilySearch.org Cecily Tyson, Female, 16, Single, Negro, Daughter
". 'Stars of Tomorrow' Enroll for Contest" . May 23, 1953. New York Amsterdam News Close on her heels were Jean Johnson, a beautician of 435 W. 125th St., and Cecily Tyson, a fashion model, who lives at 311 E. 102nd St.
"Cicely Tyson, Towering Award-Winning Star of Stage and Screen, Dies at 96". . January 28, 2021. Broadway.com Cicely Louise Tyson was born on December 18, 1924 in New York City.
^ a b Elber, Lynn (January 23, 2020). "Cicely Tyson Talks Life, Longevity and Love". Chicago Tribune. p. 36. "She described her annual birthday eve ritual. 'I sit at a table with a clock and when it gets to one minute after 12, that's when I say, "Thank You," and "Happy Birthday, Cicely,"' said Tyson, who was born December 19, 1924 in New York City." See also:
Tyson, Cicely; Burford, Michelle (2021).
Just as I Am: A Memoir. New York, NY: HarperCollins. pp. 16, 17, 368. ISBN 978-0-06-293106-1 "My parents began their married life together in a Bronx tenement before later relocating to Manhattan's East Side. The year after they wed, they welcomed my brother, Melrose, a name my father had loved since the day he spotted it on a street sign in the Bronx. Six days before Christmas in 1924, I arrived with my thumb poked in my mouth and nary a strand of hair." [...] "After we'd moved from the Bronx to the East Side, Daddy would put me in my stroller early in the mornings and walk me over to Central Park." [...] "During the press blitzkrieg surrounding the Kennedy Center ceremony, I spoke that number aloud with nary a quake in my voice. 'When were you born?' one reporter asked me. 'December 19, 1924,' I answered.'"
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^ Leonardo Blair,
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