The legendary actress Cicely Tyson was known for her style, grace and compelling presence both on stage and in film. Now, the multi-hyphenate star posthumously has a street renamed after her in the neighborhood she grew up in.
On Saturday, the East Harlem block of East 101st Street between 3rd and Lexington avenues unveiled Cicely Tyson Way. Tyson’s family, friends and local community members attended the ceremony near the fifth-floor, railroad apartment building at 178 East 101st St. where the actor lived.
Samantha Sheppard, an associate professor of cinema and media studies at Cornell University, said the unveiling was significant because it served as a reminder of Tyson’s impact on American pop culture.
“She really is a groundbreaking and career-making, path-defining Black actress,” she said. “And for her community, but also for the American public to recognize the impact that she’s made on American popular culture in this way is significant, because we also don’t really see that many versions of recognition, particularly for Black actresses.”
Born in the Bronx in 1924, Tyson and her family moved to Harlem in 1927. As one of three siblings raised in a religious household, she was prevented from attending movies in her youth. At 18, Tyson was kicked out of the house by her mother after choosing to pursue acting. “I felt there was a reason I was called to do this. I felt that strongly about it that I could defy her and did,” Tyson said in a 2018 interview with NBC News. Before her death, Tyson’s mother accepted her daughter’s career, telling Tyson she was proud of her.
At 31, Tyson made her film debut in “Carib Gold,” where she played Dottie, a captain’s wife. From there she was cast in other feature films and TV movies, including “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” in 1968, and “Sounder” in 1972, for which she earned an Academy Award nomination for best actress. In 1974, Tyson won an Emmy for best actress for her role as an enslaved Black woman in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”
During a career that spanned 60 years, Tyson helped to break down barriers for Black women in acting by pushing against stereotypes in film and taking on roles that embodied strength, charisma and wisdom.
“She’s not just pushing up against stereotypes of playing prostitutes or drug addicts, but also Hollywood” said Sheppard, who noted that Hollywood had a limited view of Black female representation at the time.
Because of her selectiveness, Tyson often struggled to find work early in her career. Yet, she remained steadfast, finding greater film success in her late 40s.
“I think that Tyson’s roles, and the choices that she made, made her stand out,” Sheppard said, referring to the actor’s contributions in the “Black is Beautiful” movement, and certain Black cinema roles she took on like “Sounder” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”
Tyson received numerous accolades during her career, including three Emmy awards. In 2016 was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. At 93, she received an honorary Oscar. Then in January 2021, Tyson released her autobiography “Just As I Am: A Memoir.” She died a few days later in New York at the age of 96.
“With Tyson, she was an actress and a Black woman who deeply loved and reveled and respected the fact that she was Black and her Blackness,” Sheppard said.