NEW YORK — The line began forming in the dark on Monday, hours before anyone would be allowed inside the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. One 86-year-old member of the church awoke at 4:30 a.m. to ensure that she would be one of the first people on the line. She was the third.
As daylight broke and the cold persisted, the line grew around the block. Some people wore full-length, mahogany-hued furs; others wore sequined scarves and houndstooth checkered puffer coats. Only the best to see Cicely Tyson, whom they called their trueborn Harlem queen, one last time.
Tyson, who died on Jan. 28 at 96, lay at rest in the sanctuary of the church, surrounded by purple orchids, lilac roses and hydrangeas. Fans from New York and far beyond, all inspired by her seven-decade acting career, waited their turn to say their last goodbye to the revered actress.
She was a pioneering actress who won three Emmys, a Tony and an honorary Oscar, but her fame went beyond her awards. She challenged Hollywood on how it cast Black actors, and became a paragon for civil rights.
But in East Harlem, where Tyson was born and raised to immigrant parents from Nevis, she was even more than that. She co-founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969 after a tumultuous year in the civil rights movement and after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, and continued to support the arts, albeit quietly.
She had been a member of the Abyssinian Baptist Church for more than three decades, according to the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, the senior pastor at the church.
Members of Abyssinian recalled her as a quiet, graceful congregant who bought the third pew from the front and named it after her mother but would regularly sit in the back to worship.
“I am here to continue to celebrate the life of a national treasure,” Lisa Hayes, 62, a lawyer from Harlem. “We are here as we would do for anyone whom we love.”
Hayes, who wore a red face mask with the Greek letters for the Delta Sigma Theta sorority stitched on it, referred to Tyson as “soror Tyson,” and credited her for making her aware of Black beauty with the many covers of Jet magazine that she graced. She recalled how as a teen, she asked her cousin to braid her hair. Her cousin did so in a style that was similar to Tyson’s hair on the cover of an issue of Essence magazine.
“I was just beginning to feel who I am,” Hayes said. “Someone said to me, ‘Oh Lisa, that is so beautiful, you look like Cicely Tyson.’ At 62, I am still dining out on that compliment!”
Evelyn Jemmott-Jackson, a science teacher in the city and an usher at Abyssinian, arrived from Brooklyn around 7 a.m., early enough to see Tyson enter the church for the very last time. Jemmott-Jackson said she felt compelled to see Tyson because she had worshipped with her.
“We uphold our queen simply because she held us up high,” Jemmott-Jackson said as she showed someone a video of Tyson’s coffin arriving in a black Cadillac hearse. “That her family has allowed us to pay our final respects is amazing.”
Bishop Donal Yarbrough, the 86-year-old member of Abyssinian who was third in line, said that she intended to sing a song to Tyson called “Coming Home,” and then suddenly offered a preview.
“She is going home,” Bishop Yarbrough sang soulfully. “I can see God and his angels spreading their wings and it’s going to be open wide because she is one of their angels,” she sang with a vivacity that caused everyone behind her to inch out of their spots and search for the moving voice.
Shaquille Carbon, 27, looked at Bishop Yarbrough while she sang, almost in awe. He arrived in Harlem at 7 a.m. from Maryland because he grew up watching Tyson’s films. He used to dream of becoming an actor and would watch the films with his mother, who frequently played “Sounder” or “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” on her VCR.
“All my life, she has been someone who I have adored,” Carbon said through a black knitted face mask, shivering. “We owned all of her movies and watched ad nauseam in my household.”
“I wouldn’t miss this for anything in the world.”