Statements

Statement on the Passing of Groundbreaking and Iconic Actress Cicely Tyson

January 29, 2021
Portrait of Iconic Actress Cicely Tyson Axelle/Bauer-Griffin /Getty Images

Kevin Young, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, released the following statement today, Friday, Jan. 29, on the death of trailblazing actress, Cicely Tyson, who received a Tony, Emmy and honorary Oscar award recognizing her significant impact for the choices and positions she took throughout the course of her seven-decade career.

“It is with great pride that we at the National Museum of African American History and Culture celebrate the life of Cicely Tyson, an entertainment industry icon who laid the foundation for future Black actors. A fearless critic of the entertainment industry and the limitations it placed on African Americans, particularly women, Tyson chose her roles carefully and refused roles she found demeaning or perpetuated degrading stereotypes, even if it meant not working for extended periods. Tyson will be remembered as a pivotal force for her ceaseless efforts to uplift fellow Black actors and transform how Americans perceive African Americans.”

Cicely L. Tyson was born and raised in Harlem to immigrants, parents from the Caribbean island of Nevis. With bigger hopes and dreams, she pursued acting. Tyson began her stage career performing Off-Broadway in the 1950s. Her Broadway debut took place in 1959 in the play Jolly’s Progress, when she served as understudy for Eartha Kitt. In 1951, she landed her first television role in NBC’s Frontiers of Faith. In Tyson’s seven-decades long acting career, she intentionally sought out roles that reflected African American women in a positive light as a spoken truth to the African American experience. She saw a greater potential for African Americans to shape American culture through film, television and the theater. By staying true to her convictions, even if it meant Tyson struggled financially, it led to a big break in her career. 

Photograph "Cicely Tyson"

Cicely Tyson

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Jack Mitchell, All Rights Reserved

In 1972, Tyson landed the leading role in Sounder, which garnered her nominations for both the Academy Award for Best Actress and Golden Globe Award. In the film, she plays the role of a mother during the Great Depression, who must rise to the challenge of taking care of her children and the farm after her husband is imprisoned for stealing food for their children. Two years later, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman earned her two Emmy Awards in 1974 for her powerful performance. Viewers watched the story unfold through the eyes of Jane Pittman in an intimate portrayal of the African American experience, a watershed moment in television and history. Tyson was able to bring history to life as she immersed herself into narratives about testing the spirit of humankind, resonating with audiences across the country.  

Our whole Black heritage is that of struggle, pride and dignity. The Black woman has never been shown on the screen this way before.

Judy Klemesrud The New York Times, 1972

Tyson went on to lead a dynamic acting career becoming involved in over 100 roles in various movies, television shows and live theater. She broke barriers as the first African American star of a TV drama series playing the character Jane Foster in East Side/West Side in 1963. Tyson was nominated for two Emmy awards for her roles as iconic historical figures Coretta Scott King and Harriet Tubman in 1978. Her career never slowed with age and she appeared in thrillers, comedies, musicals and soap operas well into her 90s. Her more recent work included regular appearances in How to Get Away with Murder as Viola Davis’ mother (2015–2020), and film roles in A Fall from Grace (2020), Last Flag Flying (2017) and Showing Roots (2016). In 2015, she returned to the stage as Fonsia Dorsey in the Broadway production of The Gin Game.  

Photograph of Cicely Tyson and Roscoe Lee Browne, "the Blacks"

Photograph of Cicely Tyson and Roscoe Lee Browne, "the Blacks"

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Estate of Lloyd W. Yearwood

It was important to Tyson to use her fame to fight for civil rights, break tradition and defy expectations not only for herself, but for others who encountered similar challenges. While encouraging Black actors and actresses to refuse roles that demeaned Black people, she helped popularize the Afro hairstyle, inspiring other Black women to follow their own beauty standards. She had a powerful ability to enter a room and make everyone feel uplifted and important. Tyson, redefined the archetype of “the strong Black woman.”  

Tyson was the embodiment of everything that it means to be elegant and inspirational. Outside of acting, she was named a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, drawing attention to social injustices across the world. In recognition of her contributions to the performative arts and entertainment industry, Tyson was honored with the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors in 2015. She was awarded the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama in November 2016 for her transcendent influence in shaping American culture. Among her many other notable accolades, an honorary Oscar was bestowed upon her in 2018 at the age of 94 for her lifetime achievements. Tyson shares her legacy in her memoir, As I Am, published in January 2021. 
 

US President Barack Obama presents actress Cicely Tyson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom

US President Barack Obama presents actress Cicely Tyson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom

SAUL LOEB/ Getty Images

Tyson earned success by upholding her own standards, only accepting roles that not only meant something to her but were significant to the Black community and shared the untold story of African Americans. She set new precedents that will continue to inspire others to walk to the beat of their own drum.  

About the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Since opening Sept. 24, 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has welcomed more than 7 million visitors. Occupying a prominent location next to the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the nearly 400,000-square-foot museum is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history. For more information about the museum, visit nmaahc.si.edu, follow @NMAAHC on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or call Smithsonian information at (202) 633-1000. 

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Media Contact(s): 

Jason Spear (202) 633-9904; spearj@si.edu 
Melissa Wood (703) 732-5700; woodm2@si.edu  

About The Museum

The National Museum of African American History and Culture will be a place where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience, what it means to their lives and how it helped us shape this nation. A place that transcends the boundaries of race and culture that divide us, and becomes a lens into a story that unites us all.