Trailblazing Black US actress Cicely Tyson dies aged 96

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Cicely Tyson, the pioneering African-American actress and honorary Oscar winner, died Thursday aged 96, her manager said.

Known best for Emmy-winning television movie “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and her Academy-nominated turn in 1972 film “Sounder,” Tyson’s acting career spanned seven decades and often tackled issues of racism and social justice. She frequently turned down roles she saw as reinforcing negative Black stereotypes, including maids and prostitutes, and was seen as recently as last year on the small-screen thriller “How to Get Away with Murder.”

“With heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon,” manager Larry Thompson said in a statement to AFP. “I have managed Miss Tyson’s career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing,” Thompson wrote, without further details of the cause of death.

Tyson’s highly decorated career included multiple Emmys and a Tony in 2013 for “A Trip to Bountiful.” Beside Depression-era drama adaptation “Sounder,” her other film credits include “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “The Help”. In 2018, at the age of 93, Tyson was granted an honorary Oscar for her life-long work as an icon for two generations of African American actresses. “She’s a queen to us, Afro-Americans,” the actor and producer Tyler Perry said at the glitzy Hollywood ceremony.

“She had to work ten times harder to be paid a hundred times less” because she was a black woman, Perry said.

The composer Quincy Jones, in an emotional tribute, said Tyson “opened the door” for Black actresses from Angela Bassett to Lupita Nyong’o. Born in New York’s Harlem to Caribbean immigrant parents, Tyson began her career as a model before turning to acting. She won Emmys for “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” in which she played a 110-year-old woman in the Civil Rights Era reflecting on a life dating back to slavery times, and for “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.”

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She played other legendary Black female historical figures, including Harriet Tubman and Coretta Scott King, the activist wife of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Trailblazer is not a sufficient description. What a legendary artist, sage and matriarch. We salute her. Rest in power, Lady Cicely,” tweeted the Martin Luther King Jr Center on Thursday. Tyson’s memoir, “Just as I Am: A Memoir” had just been published Tuesday. “Cicely thought of her new memoir as a Christmas tree decorated with all the ornaments of her personal and professional life,” wrote manager Thompson. “Today she placed the last ornament, a Star, on top of the tree.”

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