updated 05/28/2014 AT 10:35 AM ET
•originally published 05/28/2014 AT 9:35 AM ET
Award-winning author, renowned poet, civil rights activist and one of the most respected voices in America, Dr. Maya Angelou, has died. She was 86.
A statement from her family was posted on her Facebook page Wednesday morning: “Dr. Maya Angelou passed quietly in her home before 8:00 a.m. EST. Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension. She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is extremely appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.”
Mayor Allen Joines of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, confirmed she was found by her caretaker on Wednesday morning, according to Piedmont station WGHP. She had been in failing health for some time, according to reports. No immediate further details were available.
Angelou gained acclaim for her first book, her 1970 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, making her one of the first African-American women to write a best seller. She lived in an 18-room house in North Carolina and taught American Studies at Wake Forest University.
In 1982, when Angelou was 53, PEOPLE said in a profile:
“She was born black and poor, trouble enough in the rural South of the 1920s. By age 3, she was the child of a broken home, shunted off to her paternal grandmother’s care in tiny Stamps, Arkansas. Before her 8th birthday, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend and forced to endure the further trauma of his trial; when her assailant was murdered after his release, she blamed herself and spoke hardly at all until she was nearly 13. At 17, she graduated from high school unwed and eight months pregnant. A year later, to support herself and her son, Guy, she became the madam of a two-woman whorehouse in San Diego, and then for a short time a prostitute herself.
“Yet today,” the profile continued, “this same Maya Angelou is a protean woman, fluent in seven languages and the recipient of 13 honorary degrees. She was nominated for a National Book Award for her nonfiction and a Tony award for her acting.”
“Maya is one of those totally steadfast people with a spine made of iron,” her longtime friend, writer Jessica Mitford (The American Way of Death), told PEOPLE at the time. “She’s a force of nature with so many talents in every direction that the combination comes like an earthquake.”
‘I Never Expected Anyone to Take Care of Me’
Born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, she was the daughter of Bailey Johnson, a civilian dietician for the Navy who died in 1969, and Vivian Baxter Wilburn, whose numerous careers included real estate broker, surgical nurse and merchant marine radio operator.
“Anytime anything was being taught, my mother studied it and got certified,” Angelou told PEOPLE.
When Angelou was 21, she married Tosh Angelos, a Greek-American sailor she met while working in a record shop in San Francisco.
“I never expected anyone to take care of me, but in my wildest dreams and juvenile yearnings, I wanted the house with the picket fence from June Allyson movies,” she said. “I knew that was yearning like one yearns to fly.”
When the marriage dissolved three years later, she changed her name to Maya (her childhood nickname) Angelou on her drama coach’s advice and tried her hand at show business. While singing calypso and blues in San Francisco’s hip Purple Onion, she was hired by a road company of Porgy and Bess and toured Europe and Africa in 1954-55, leaving Guy with her mother in San Francisco.
Homesick for her son, she returned to the West Coast in 1955 and resumed her nightclub career. In 1959 she and young Guy moved to New York, where Angelou joined the Harlem Writers Guild, sang at the Apollo Theater and produced and performed in Cabaret for Freedom. A rights activist, she was drafted by Martin Luther King Jr. as northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Politics entered her romantic life, too: She jilted her fiancé, a bail bondsman, to take up with a South African black activist, Vusumzi Make. During their three-year relationship they lived in New York and Cairo, where she worked on the weekly news magazine Arab Observer. Then, leaving Make because of his frequent affairs, she moved to Ghana, where she was a university administrator and an editor of the African Review, a political monthly.
The Birth of a Best Seller
Not long after her return to the States in 1966, author James Baldwin took Angelou to dinner at cartoonist-writer Jules Feiffer’s house. “We were drinking and talking and fighting for the right to tell stories,” remembers Angelou. “The next day Jules’s wife, Judy, called a friend at Random House and told him if he could get me to write an autobiography, he’d have something.”
Busy producing a 10-hour television series for PBS, Angelou rebuffed editor Bob Loomis during several phone conversations. Then he baited her. “He told me it was almost impossible to write autobiography as literature and I probably couldn’t do it anyway,” she remembers. “I said: ‘I’ll do it!’ ”
When Caged Bird was published in 1970, the critics were generous – as they were the following year over her first volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie.
At a London literary party Angelou met Paul du Feu, a carpenter and construction worker who had acquired some notoriety himself as Germaine Greer’s (The Female Eunuch) ex-husband and as the first nude centerfold for British Cosmopolitan. She fell deeply in love, and they were married in 1973, settling on the West Coast.
Return to Acting
While her husband remodeled and built houses, Angelou expanded her career. She directed for film and television, acted on Broadway and in TV’s Roots (in which she played Kunta Kinte’s grandmother), and co-authored the script of the TV-movie Caged Bird.
The marriage ultimately failed, and Angelou moved to a genteel, sprawling house on the wooded outskirts of Winston-Salem, where she would prepare her lectures on politics and literature and entertain a circle of diverse friends who included Reynolds tobacco gentry, academics and young professionals.
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.
With her regal presence, she was the poet chosen to read at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993, when she recited an original composition, On the Pulse of Morning, which then became a million seller. She also served as a longtime mentor to Oprah Winfrey.
“I will go anywhere at any time,” Angelou told PEOPLE. “No one frightens me. Everything costs. It would cost me if I was not famous or successful – I would pay for it in another way. I really heard my mother years ago when she told me: ‘You may not get what you paid for, but you will pay for what you get.’ ”
Additional reporting by CHERYL McCALL and ASSOCIATED PRESS