Harlem, New York, USA - On this day our destination was Spanish Harlem. And WST (When Steel Talks) was there to join in the celebration and honoring of the late great legendary Cicely Tyson, which would include a performance by CASYM Steel Orchestra.
In never-before moments in the history of America the world can experience, live, hear and see scholarly, intelligent, dignified, progressive black women of supreme ability in positions of power, leadership, and recognize their genius. Black women like Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States - Ketanji Brown-Jackson, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States - Karine Jean-Pierre, White House Press Secretary - Rihanna, Barbadian ambassador, performer and businesswoman - Dr. Mae C. Jemison, physician, engineer and astronaut - just to name a few. All of these women stand on the shoulders of the likes of Cicely Tyson who led the charge, never compromised and lived her life in a manner to make these moments happen.
East 101st Street, East Harlem earlier in the day, in preparation for its renaming in honor of the iconic Cicely Tyson
Not willing to chance the timing of trains on a weekend schedule from Brooklyn to the city on a Saturday, we arrived quite early for the 1:00 p.m. unveiling. The first person to greet us warmly was none other than Taina Traverso. She, along with Deborah Quinones, Nina M. Saxon and the Honorable Diana Ayala - New York City Council deputy speaker, cofounded the Cicely Tyson Street Renaming and Landmark Committee. “Renaming” is referred to officially as co-naming as the respective street retains its original designation and signage.
The effervescent Taina Traverso on the afternoon of the event celebration, after the street renaming
Also on site early was artist J. Moses Harper, who shared that she regarded Cicely Tyson as a mentor, and had been deeply affected by the icon’s passing. Working off the drawing she had sketched through inspiration in her room by natural light, the resultant painting was revealed to all who attended, to witness and experience.
Visual artist J. Moses Harper shared her painting “Harlem’s Finest” - an oil canvas tribute to Cicely Tyson - with the legendary icon’s family and event attendees throughout the day.
Cicely Tyson was raised on the fifth floor of the 178 East 101st Street walk-up, between Lexington and 3rd Avenues. The admired iconic actress was born in the Bronx in 1924 to parents from the Caribbean island of Nevis; the family moved to Harlem when she was 3. The renaming of the street in her honor was approved by the New York City Council.
178 East 101st Street - Cicely Tyson grew up in that top
apartment on the fifth floor
It has been a while since we’ve walked the streets of East Harlem. Instantly, childhood memories come to the forefront. The sounds, the music, the smells, the sights - back to a time when the community was a living breathing organism and everyone cared about each other. Moreover, everyone reveled in each other’s success. You could hear Spanish, broken English, with every dialect of the Caribbean and of course that southern drawl - all within one gathering. Back to a time with folks who knew what a ‘Johnny Pump’ was and everyone knew everyone on the block. And when it was 90 degrees everyone was cooling out on their fire escapes.
If you made the journey here by train, upon exiting the 103rd Street subway you are greeted with this extremely steep hill as you walk to 101st Street. Your first thought is: “Did Cicely make this walk everyday” from school to her house?
Grupo Tolteca Chichimeca in procession along East 101st Street
Speaking of walk, before the ceremony a procession by the indigenous Grupo Tolteca Chichimeca of New York effected a blessing of that block of East 101st Street to be co-named. With chants, percussion, prayer, incense, and the blowing of a conch shell, the group performed the dedication of the area. This was followed by them anointing with incense - the Tyson family members, friends, and subsequently others present.
Grupo Tolteca Chichimeca performs incense anointing
Family members, elected officials who supported the street-renaming initiative along with community sponsors then made their way to seats on the dais, all gathered for this honorable occasion. Unable to be present herself due to illness, the New York City Council deputy speaker Diana Ayala’s chief of staff Elsie Encarnacion - herself an East Harlem resident - attended on Ayala’s behalf.
Chief of staff Elsie Encarnacion addresses the crowd
Speaking on Cicely Tyson, Encarnacion said that it was important to remember she grew up on this very block adding, “It’s also important to know that the building she grew up in was later named after her. That that building in 1994, along with three other buildings were re-habilitated for low-income housing for over fifty families in this community. That, along with her long, long list of accolades, is what makes her a legacy to this community. And it’s our responsibility in the city council to make sure that we cement that in history; and we do that by way of street co-namings. So generation upon generation can look up and say: “Ms. Cicely Tyson was here, and she did that and maybe one day I can to”.”
Brief remarks were also delivered by several in attendance, including Manhattan borough president Mark Levine, New York State Senator José M. Serrano who represents the 29th District, Community Board 11 president Xavier Santiago, Cicely Harris - Chair of Manhattan Community Board 10, and Jimyce Johnston - president of the New York Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, an organization of which Cicely Tyson had been an honorary member.
Cicely Tyson’s nephew Reginald Henry
Tyson’s nephew Reginald Henry also shared several insights into his aunt, including “She [Cicely Tyson] turned down many roles because they were demeaning....” The Cicely Tyson Street Renaming and Landmark Committee Taina Traverso, Deborah Quinones and Nina M. Saxon thanked everyone who made it all possible. Traverso said there were also neighborhood businesses who were participating in the celebration by giving discounts to those who indicated that they were present for the street co-naming.
Left to right: Deborah Quinones, Nina M. Saxon and Taina Traverso
Everyone then made their way to the top of 101st Street at the corner of Lexington Avenue for the unveiling. Family members, officials and respective personnel were positioned adjacent to the pole bearing the street sign. Then, to loud cheers and applause of the community, the sheathing was pulled off the sign - displaying the co-naming ‘Cicely Tyson Way,’ with photos and footage being captured of the memorable moments.
The unveiling of the sign co-naming the block of East 101st Street ‘Cicely Tyson Way’
Proud display of ‘Cicely Tyson Way’
The wide-ranging entertainment segment got underway shortly after. The event embraced and showcased aspects that Cicely would have experienced in her life growing up on this block in this Spanish Harlem neighborhood, and her journey through life. And a group brought additional joy to onlookers when they invited their participation alongside them toward the end of their dance presentation.
The joy of inclusion, and the joy of dance at the event marking the co-naming of Cicely Tyson Way
Arts, culture and community - there was song, dance, spoken word, and steelpan.
Members of CASYM Steel Orchestra’s stage side with artist J. Moses Harper and her painting of Cicely Tyson, before the band performed
Representing her roots - the Caribbean aspect of Cicely Tyson’s life - was CASYM Steel Orchestra which straight up stole the show when it was their turn to shine. They dropped a volley of hits and crowd-pleasers that had the attendees calling for more.
CASYM Steel Orchestra performs at the event
Slight in physical stature, but a giant among Hollywood actresses, actors and directors in life. Many have stood upon the shoulders of Cicely Tyson, a 2015 Kennedy Center honoree, and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient the following year. In 2018 she received an honorary Academy Award, but had been a best actress Oscar-nominee in 1973, a three-time Emmy winner and also notched a Tony award. These are but drops in an ocean of accomplishments of Cicely Tyson. She never took on a role that demeaned black people or showed them in less than the best light. Simply put, Cicely Tyson never forgot where she came from - or who she was.
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