In Loving Memory of Cicely Tyson

Sunrise: December 19, 1924 – Sunset: January 28, 2021

Actress, model, and African American icon Cicely Tyson passed away on Thursday, Jan. 28, at the age of 96.

For years, Ms. Tyson was one of the most heralded and respected Black actresses in Hollywood, and she became famous in cinema for her roles as Rebecca in Sounder (1972) and Jane Pittman in The Autobiography of Jane Pittman (1974).

Her career spanned decades, and in 2005, she played Myrtle Simmons in Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman. In 2011, she played Constantine Bates in the period drama The Help, and from 2015-2020, she played a guest role alongside Viola Davis on ABC’s hit drama How to Get Away With Murder.

Ms. Tyson’s list of accomplishments is endless, and in November 2016, she was rewarded with the highest civilian honor in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

She’s won three Emmy Awards, a Tony Award, an Honorary Academy Award – which celebrates achievements in cinema that aren’t awarded by the Academy Awards – and in 2020, she became a member of the Television Hall of Fame.

President Barack Obama shared this statement on Instagram:

When Cicely Tyson was born, doctors predicted she wouldn’t make it three months because of a murmur in her heart. What they didn’t know, what they couldn’t know, was that Cicely had a heart unlike any other — the kind that would not only beat for 96 more years but leave a mark on the world that few could match.

In her extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson was one of the rare award-winning actors whose work on the screen was surpassed only by what she was able to accomplish off of it.

Cicely wasn’t exactly destined for Hollywood. When she was a child, her mother — a hardworking and religious woman who cleaned houses — didn’t even let her go to the movies. But once Cicely got her education, she made a conscious decision not just to say her lines but to speak her truth.

At a time when parts for actors who looked like her weren’t easy to come by, she refused to take on roles that reduced Black women to their gender or their race. Sometimes, that meant she would go years without work. But she took pride in knowing that whenever her face was on camera, she would be playing a character who was a human being — flawed but resilient; perfect not despite but because of their imperfections. Across all of her performances, in legendary productions ranging from “Sounder” to “The Trip to Bountiful” to “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” she helped us see the dignity within all who made up our miraculous — and, yes, messy — American family.

Michelle and I were honored when Cicely came to the White House to accept the Medal of Freedom, knowing she was one of the many giants upon whose shoulders we stood — 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.

We are sending our thoughts and prayers to every member of Cicely’s family and to all of those who loved her. And while we are saddened that her heart finally came to a rest today, there is comfort in knowing that she will always live on in ours.