NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Maya Angelou, a modern Renaissance woman who survived the harshest of childhoods to become a force on stage, screen, the printed page and the inaugural dais, has died. She was 86.
Her death was confirmed in a statement issued by Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she had served as a professor of American Studies since 1982.
“Dr. Angelou was a national treasure whose life and teachings inspired millions around the world, including countless students, faculty and staff at Wake Forest,” the university said in a statement on its website.
Her family also released a statement on Facebook later Wednesday morning saying she died quietly in her home shortly before 8 a.m.
“She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace,” her family said in the statement. “The family is extremely appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.”
She had been scheduled to attend the 2014 MLB Beacon Awards Luncheon on May 30 but pulled out for “health reasons,” Major League Baseball said last week.
She also canceled an event in Fayetteville, Arkansas last month because she was recovering from an “unexpected ailment” that sent her to the hospital.
Her last tweet, posted on May 23, said, “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”
Since news of her death, tributes have been pouring in on social media.
Sesame Street tweeted a picture of Angelou with the message: “We’re saddened by the passing of our friend Maya Angelou. Thank you for all you’ve done, and for all the hugs.”
Angelou narrated and appeared in the “Sesame Street” special “Elmo Saves Christmas” in 1996 and appeared in several segments on the program during the 1990s.
Angelou was an author, poet, actress, songwriter, dancer, college professor, civil rights activist and historian. She was the winner of three Grammy awards and directed and produced movies.
Tall and regal, with a deep, majestic voice, Angelou defied all probability and category, becoming one of the first black women to enjoy mainstream success as an author and thriving in virtually every artistic medium.
The young single mother who performed at strip clubs to earn a living later wrote and recited the most popular presidential inaugural poem in history.
The childhood victim of rape wrote a million-selling memoir, befriended Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and performed on stages around the world.
She gained acclaim for her first book in 1970, her autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” making her one of the first African-American women to write a best-seller.
The book is her story at age 17, the age she gave birth to her son and became a single mother, CBS 2’s Alice Gainer reported.
“The Caged Bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill for the caged bird sings of freedom.”
Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis and raised in Stamps, Ark., and San Francisco, moving back and forth between her parents and her grandmother.
She was smart and fresh to the point of danger, packed off by her family to California after sassing a white store clerk in Arkansas. Other times, she didn’t speak at all: At age 7, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend and didn’t speak for years. She learned by reading, and listening.
At age 9, she was writing poetry. In her early 20s, she danced at a strip joint, ran a brothel, was married to her first of three husbands and then divorced.
By her mid-20s, Angelou was performing at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, where she shared billing with another future star, Phyllis Diller. She spent a few days with Billie Holiday, who was kind enough to sing a lullaby to Angelou’s son Guy, surly enough to heckle her off the stage and astute enough to tell her: “You’re going to be famous. But it won’t be for singing.”
After renaming herself Maya Angelou for the stage, she toured in “Porgy and Bess” and Jean Genet’s “The Blacks” and danced with Alvin Ailey.
She worked as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Council, and lived for years in Egypt and Ghana, where she met Malcolm X and remained close to him until his assassination, in 1965.
Three years later, she was helping King organize the Poor People’s March in Memphis, Tenn., where the civil rights leader was slain on Angelou’s 40th birthday.
“Every year, on that day, Coretta and I would send each other flowers,” Angelou said of King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, who died in 2006.
In 1998, she directed the film “Down in the Delta” about a drug-wrecked woman who returns to the home of her ancestors in the Mississippi Delta.
She was the poet chosen to read at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993. She wrote and read an original composition, “On the Pulse of Morning,” which became a million-seller.
She was a mentor to Oprah Winfrey, whom she befriended when Winfrey was still a local television reporter, and often appeared on her friend’s talk show program.
She mastered several languages and published not just poetry, but advice books, cookbooks and children’s stories.
She wrote music, plays and screenplays, received an Emmy nomination for her acting in “Roots,” and never lost her passion for dance, the art she considered closest to poetry.
In North Carolina, she lived in an 18-room house and taught American Studies at Wake Forest University. She was also a member of the Board of Trustees for Bennett College, a private school for black women in Greensboro, N.C. Angelou hosted a weekly satellite radio show for XM’s “Oprah & Friends” channel.
She also owned and renovated a townhouse in Harlem, the inside decorated in spectacular primary colors.
Active on the lecture circuit, she gave commencement speeches and addressed academic and corporate events across the country. Angelou received dozens of honorary degrees, and several elementary schools were named for her.
Schomburg Center Exhibit Celebrates The Life Of Maya Angelou
Once they received word of her passing The Schomburg Center in Harlem immediately went to work on a display of Angelou’s writing, which also included notes and letters, some of which were from Malcolm X.
The display has been called a celebration of her life.
Angelou rose to fame with her 1969 autobiography ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’. The story detailed a harsh upbringing in Arkansas that was filled with poverty, segregation, and violence. The story ended with Angelou becoming a teen mother.
“Not only did she help to empower women and girls around the country who had been victims of sexual assault or abuse, but also did it in a way with dignity and grace and respect,” explained Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of The Schomburg Center in Harlem.
Muhammad said that the exhibit contains import pieces of the story.
“We actually have notes where she writes bible verses down and she’s actually looking for chapter and verse of what she’s going to use as well as the handwritten manuscript,” he explained.
Upon learning of Angelou’s death the items were pulled out of a collection of her work that had been tucked away after being purchased in 2010. The new exhibit is called ‘Phenomenal Woman: Maya Angelou.’
“We lost a literary giant. A woman who was deeply committed to celebrating the best in human beings,” Muhammad said, “We have correspondence with many other writers, James Baldwin and Malcom X.”
Muhammad said that Angelou spoke at the center and discussed the importance of libraries.
“She knew that it would be a place where the young and old, the scholars and the semi-literate, the person on the street and the presidents of the university could come and be inspired by it,” he told CBS 2’s Alice Gainer.
The exhibit opens on Friday and will be on display for a few weeks. It is free and open to all of those who want to take in a slice of Angelou’s extraordinary life.
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