Cicely Tyson's Incredible, Groundbreaking Life in Photos

A Life Well Lived

Born on Dec. 19, 1924, in New York City, Cicely Tyson grew up in Manhattan and began modeling at the age of 30. Covers of Ebony and Jet soon led to offers of theater, film and TV roles, though she quickly realized that, as one of the few Black people in her industry, she “could not afford the luxury of just being an actress,” she told PEOPLE in an interview just one week before her death.

“I suddenly became aware of how unaware whites were of Blacks in America, and realized, ‘I got some work to do.’ ”

And do it she did, portraying the realities of the Black American experience in her roles as both historical trailblazers (Coretta Scott King, Harriet Tubman) and fearless fictional ones (Binta in Roots and the title character in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman).

Tyson died at the age of 96 on Jan. 28, 2021. Here, a look back on her life in photos.

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Play Time, 1961

Tyson with James Earl Jones in The Blacks Off-Broadway. “He is gentle as can be, but he roared like a lion,” she said of Jones, a friend to this day. “He still has within him the very essence of a powerful actor.”

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Crowning Glory, 1963

In the drama series East Side/West Side, Tyson rocked an Afro — a first for TV. “I tried to present to the universe a woman with all of her natural beauties, that happened to be Black,” she said.

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Love of a Lifetime, 1968

After they began dating in 1966, Tyson and Miles Davis “got closer and closer,” she said, breaking up, reconnecting, marrying and divorcing over the course of the next 22 years. There were bad times, including his infidelities and their stunned sorrow after MLK and RFK were killed in 1968. But until his death in 1991, “I loved him and he loved me … Of that fact, I am certain.”

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The Cool Kids, 1969

Tyson at a party with writer James Baldwin, ballet dancer Arthur Mitchell and singer Harry Belafonte: “Those were happy times, and we were closely bound together.”

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Sounder, 1972

Playing sharecropper mom Rebecca in Sounder earned her an Oscar nomination. “Director Martin Ritt said, ‘This is supposed to be a children’s film. But if we’re not careful, we’re going to make a damn good movie,’ ” recalled Tyson (with costar Eric Hooks).

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Holding the Gold, 1974

The actress earned two Emmys, including one for Actress of the Year, for her performance in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. At 49, she portrayed a character who aged from 19 to 110.

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Making History, 1977

She starred with author Maya Angelou in the groundbreaking TV miniseries Roots, which dramatized the history of slavery. “We were everlasting friends,” said Tyson. “She was such a warm, wonderful person.”

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Bustin’ Loose, 1981

“What on earth kind of movie would I ever do with Richard?” Tyson asked when she heard that the “foulmouthed” Richard Pryor, whom she had never met, wanted her to be his costar. Their comedy turned out to be a huge hit

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The Women of Brewster Place, 1989

“I don’t usually look at my work, but the other day
I watched it,” said Tyson (bottom left).” I called [costar and friend] Oprah Winfrey and said, ‘That is some movie.’ She said, ‘You didn’t see it before?’ And I said, ‘No, but I’m glad I did. It’s brilliant.’ ”

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Handsome Date, 2013

Tyson held hands with godson Lenny Kravitz at the New York City premiere of The Butler. “We speak every couple of weeks,” she said.

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Medal of Freedom, 2016

In his speech before bestowing the honor, President Obama called her “gorgeous.” Said Tyson: “For a young Black girl to grow up in a country where because of the color of your skin you are referred to as a ‘pickaninny’ and all those unattractive words that made you feel ugly, that was something.”

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Kindred Spirits, 2020

Tyson’s How to Get Away with Murder costar Viola Davis wrote the foreword to her new memoir, Just As I Am. “One of the things I appreciate about her is the fact that there is a depth in her soul [when it comes to] her understanding of Black women,” said Tyson.

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