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Cicely Tyson, legendary actor known for 'Sounder' and other roles, dies at 96

She was nominated for an Oscar for her role in "Sounder" and received a Tony Award in 2013 when she was 88.
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Cicely Tyson, a legendary film, television and stage actress known for "Sounder" and other roles, died Thursday at the age of 96, her family said.

"With heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon," her manager, Larry Thompson, said in a statement. "At this time, please allow the family their privacy."

A cause of death was not immediately given.

Tyson was born and raised in Harlem and was first discovered as a model for Ebony Magazine. She began her screen career with bit parts but gained fame in the early 1970s when Black women were finally starting to get starring roles.

Actress Cicely Tyson in New York, 1976.Jack Mitchell / Getty Images file

Tyson starred as Rebecca Morgan, a sharecropper in the 1972 film "Sounder" and was nominated for best actress at the Academy Awards the next year.

Tyson also won two Emmy awards for "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," and in 2013 she won a Tony Award for "The Trip to Bountiful."

In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded Tyson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, and the year before that she received the Kennedy Center Honors lifetime achievement award.

Obama in presenting Tyson the medal of freedom in 2016 said she shaped the course of history.

"Cicely made a conscious decision not just to say lines but to speak out," Obama said. "I would not accept roles, she said, unless they projected us, particularly women, in a realistic light and dealt with us as human beings."

Tyson's memoir, "Just as I Am: A Memoir," came out this week.

In 2018, Tyson was asked about the success of Black women in Hollywood, like Viola Davis and Kerry Washington, and about successful films, like "Black Panther" and "A Wrinkle in Time," and she said it was high time.

"It’s long overdue, I can tell you that," Tyson told NBC News. " It has always been there. We have been a race of people that have been suppressed out of fear and finally we have been able to get a hold on the power that this industry wields."

Cicely Tyson of "Cherish the Day" speaks during the OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network segment of the 2020 Winter TCA Press Tour at The Langham Huntington, Pasadena on Jan. 16, 2020.Amy Sussman / Getty Images file

"It’s certainly because of our stick-to-it-iveness," she said.

Thompson, Tyson's manager, said he managed her career for four decades and "and each year was a privilege and blessing."

"Cicely thought of her new memoir as a Christmas tree decorated with all the ornaments of her personal and professional life," Thompson said. "Today she placed the last ornament, a Star, on top of the tree."

While Tyson did not win the Oscar in 1973, she was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2018 for her body of work.

Among her many notable roles, she appeared in 1991's "Fried Green Tomatoes,” 2005's “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” and "The Help," which came out in 2011.

Tyson appeared in the series "Roots," in which she played he played Binta, mother of the protagonist, Kunta Kinte. She also played Coretta Scott King in the 1978 series "King" and Harriet Tubman in the series "A Woman Called Moses," which also came out that year.

In 1994, she won an Emmy for her role as Castalia in "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All."

At the ceremony where she received her honorary Oscar, Tyson reflected that 45 years ago she had been offered her first major movie, "Sounder." Looking back at her long career, she talked about the importance of faith and belief, and she noted that in one month she would be 94 years old.

"I don't know that I would cherish a better gift than this — this is the culmination of all those years, of have and have-not," she said. "

The Academy was among the many mourning her. "Early in her career, Cicely Tyson promised herself that she would only portray strong women. Harriet Tubman. Coretta Scott King. Miss Jane Pittman, and so many others," the Academy tweeted, adding "she led by example and will be missed."

Tributes to Tyson hailed her as someone who paved the way for others. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center said, "Trailblazer is not a sufficient description," calling Tyson "a legendary artist, sage and matriarch."

The rapper and actor Common tweeted, "While she may be gone, her work and life will continue to inspire millions for years to come," and the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson called her "a force of nature unto herself."

Broadway star Tracie Thoms thanked Tyson: "I have no words. Just thank you, Madame Cicely Tyson. We are, because YOU paved the way for us. A queen and a trailblazer indeed."

The Associated Press contributed.