Celebrities, politicians and a slew of notable figures have paid tribute to Cicely Tyson after her family announced that the esteemed actor had died on Thursday at age 96.
“Michelle [Obama] and I were honored when Cicely came to the White House to accept the Medal of Freedom,” Barack Obama wrote, recalling her 2016 recognition in an Instagram post honoring the actor.
The president noted Tyson was “ a trailblazer whose legacy couldn’t be measured by her Emmys and Tony and Oscar alone, but by the barriers she broke and the dreams she made possible”.
Born in 1924, Tyson enjoyed a career spanned more than 70 years, was nominated for an Oscar for her role as a sharecropper’s wife in the 1972 film Sounder at a time when Black women were rarely hired in starring roles. In 2013, she won a Tony Award at age 88.
Besides her Oscar nomination, she won two Emmys for playing a 110-year-old former slave in the 1974 television drama The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
Tyson had recently released a memoir, titled Just As I Am, which which published this week.
Known for playing strong Black leads, Tyson refused to play roles that were demeaning to Black women. The actor has long been considered a force in the entertainment industry, opening doors for many Black professionals to follow.
“You made me feel loved and seen and valued in a world where there is still a cloak of invisibility for us dark chocolate girls,” actor Viola Davis posted in tribute to the woman who played her mother in the television saga How to Get Away With Murder.
“You gave me permission to dream,” Davis added, noting she was “devastated” and “not ready for [Tyson] to be [her] angel yet”.
Also an activist, Tyson appeared in several films chronicling eras in US history, including The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which depicted the life of a former enslaved woman, and appearing in The Rosa Parks Story in 2002.
She often spoke out against injustice plaguing Black women in American society, occasionally being photographed alongside other prominent women in the civil rights movement including Coretta Scott King and Parks.
In an interview with the CBS This Morning anchor Gayle King, released just days before her death, Tyson revealed racism from a white interviewer uncomfortable with Black family dynamics in Sounder led to her decision to use her career as her platform.
“This man [was] thinking that we’re not human beings and I made up my mind that I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress,” she said at the time.
King asked how “Ms Legend” wanted to be remembered, to which Tyson simply replied “that I did my best”.
“It is impossible to comprehend what it is like to be a Black [woman] who lived 96 yrs in this land,” the writer Nikole Hannah Jones tweeted. “To have seen a country of apartheid cede to one [with] a Black president and then a white nationalist [one].
“To be born Black in 1924, a girl, and yet refuse to sell yourself out for success. There is a lesson for all of us who, because of women like her, never had to fight the battles she fought.”