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Cicely Tyson's Legacy: Lives Changed By The Harlem-Born Icon's Work


Bundled up in thick winter coats and protective face coverings, people from around the country lined up today around the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. They came for the public viewing of actress Cicely Tyson. She died in late January at age 96. Her pioneering career had special resonance for some fellow Black women, and we asked a few to tell us who Cicely Tyson was to them.

FEYI BELLO: My name is Feyikemi Bello. I'm 28 years old. I live in Lagos, Nigeria. Watching a story about a Black woman was always - you paid extra attention, and you captured every word. And your eyes would dart as theirs would dart because you're studying every single move because your soul recognizes that it's looking at its own, if you know what I mean, because I'm mahogany dark. I'm super dark-skinned, and I didn't always see my skin color on anywhere. It was never in any books, magazines, movies.

SHARON TYREE: My name is Sharon Tyree (ph). I'm 55 years old, and I live in Beltsville, Md.

NICOLE MCRAE: My name is Nicole McRae (ph). I'm 31 years old, and I live in Beltsville, Md.

TYREE: I've seen old pictures of Cicely Tyson. And let me tell you, she gives it all - OK? - in her photo shoots. Grace, dignity, confidence - it grabs you, you know? It makes you pay attention. Like, it just melts through the screen. You feel her in all her roles.

CAROLYN ASH: So my full name is Carolyn Ash, and I live in Denver, Colo. I actually was in New York City in 2013, and I saw Cicely Tyson in "The Trip To Bountiful" on Broadway. And as I was watching her, I thought, I just cannot believe that this woman is giving this kind of performance at the age of 88.

TYREE: My mother's 82. She'll be...

ASH: Yep.

TYREE: ...Eighty-three in April. And she said, you know, I remember when we took a church bus trip up to New York to see Cicely Tyson in "Bounty" (ph). She was in those struggle movies as, you know what? No matter what you put on me, I'm going to make sure that I keep pushing and keep moving until I get through this.

ASH: Yep.

MCRAE: Perseverance. I mean...

TYREE: Perseverance - yep.

MCRAE: I think that's just part of the DNA of a Black woman, right?

TYREE: Yeah.

BELLO: She loved out loud, and she loved with a huge, beating heart. And everyone that was lucky enough to work with her, to be around her, you know, felt that love of a grandmother, of an auntie, of a big sister, of a mother, you know? She - and we felt that all the way over here.

MCRAE: That's the one thing I'm going to miss - like, seeing an older person say, I got you. You can do this. You are worth it. Keep doing what you're doing. You're strong, right? The fact that I'm talking like this, you would think she was my auntie from down the street low-key. But it really felt like that. It felt like that for us.

ASH: To me, it was like she was royalty but then also accessible. And you usually don't get those two things in one person. But without even knowing her personally, I felt like I was one of her children or grandchildren or godchildren. That's what I'm holding in my heart - that I belong to her and, somehow, she belonged to me.

CHANG: That's Carolyn Ash, Sharon Tyree, Nicole McRae and Feyi Bello, remembering the late, great actress Cicely Tyson. Her public viewing was today in New York, and her memorial service is tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAJ MAHAL'S "NEEDED TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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