Award-winning author, renowned poet and civil rights activist Dr. Maya Angelou was found dead in her Winston-Salem, N.C., home Wednesday morning. She was 86.
Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Jones confirmed Angelou's death to Fox News. Angelou, who rose from poverty as a child raised in St. Louis and Stamps, Ark., to become a cultural icon, gained widespread acclaim for her first book, her autobiography "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," making her one of the first African-American women to write a best-seller.
In 1998, she directed the film "Down in the Delta" about a drug-addicted woman who returns to the home of her ancestors in the Mississippi Delta. She was the poet chosen to read at President Clinton's first inauguration in 1993 and later received the Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2010.
"Like so many others, Michelle and I will always cherish the time we were privileged to spend with Maya," Obama said in a statement. "With a kind word and a strong embrace, she had the ability to remind us that we are all God’s children; that we all have something to offer. And while Maya’s day may be done, we take comfort in knowing that her song will continue, 'flung up to heaven' — and we celebrate the dawn that Maya Angelou helped bring."
Major League Baseball announced last week that Angelou would not attend its 2014 Beacon Awards Luncheon, where she was to be honored, due to health concerns. Angelou also canceled an event in April in Fayetteville, Ark., because of an "unexpected ailment" that sent her to the hospital.
"Dr. Angelou was a national treasure whose life and teachings inspired millions around the world, including countless students, faculty and staff at Wake Forest, where she served as Reynolds Professor of American Studies since 1982," Wake Forest University said in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with Dr. Angelou's family and friends during this difficult time."
Born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis on April 4, 1928, Angelou was raised in Stamps, Ark., and San Francisco, moving back and forth between her parents and grandmother. She was reportedly sent to California after sassing a white store clerk in Arkansas and, at other times, did not speak at all. She was raped by her mother's boyfriend at age 7 and did not speak for years afterward, instead learning by reading and listening.
"I loved the poetry that was sung in the black church: 'Go down Moses, way down in Egypt's land,'" Angelou told The Associated Press. "It just seemed to me the most wonderful way of talking. And 'Deep River.' Ooh! Even now it can catch me. And then I started reading, really reading, at about 7 ½, because a woman in my town took me to the library, a black school library. ... And I read every book, even if I didn't understand it."
By age 9, Angelou was writing poetry, and by 17 she was a single mother. In her early 20s, she danced at a strip club, ran a brothel and married Enistasious Tosh Angelos (the first of her three husbands) before divorcing. By her mid-20s, she performed alongside another future star — Phyllis Diller — at the Purple Onion in San Francisco. She also spent a few days with Billie Holiday, who was astute enough to tell her: "You're going to be famous. But it won't be for singing."
Angelou later renamed herself for the stage, choosing her childhood nickname before touring in "Porgy and Bess" and Jean Genet's "The Blacks" and dancing alongside Alvin Ailey. She also worked for years in Egypt and Ghana, where she met Malcolm X and remained close to him until his assassination in 1965. Three years later, Angelou helped the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., organize a march in Memphis, Tenn., where the civil rights leader was killed on Angelou's 40th birthday.
Angelou was little known outside of the theatrical community until "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," which was published in 1969. The memoir was occasionally attacked as "manipulative" melodrama and her passages on rape and teen pregnancy have made it a mainstay on the American Library Association's list of works that draw complaints from parents and educators.
"'I thought that it was a mild book. There's no profanity," Angelou told the AP. "It speaks about surviving, and it really doesn't make ogres of many people. I was shocked to find there were people who really wanted it banned, and I still believe people who are against the book have never read the book."
Angelou would later appear on several television programs, including the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries "Roots." She was also nominated for a Tony Award in 1973, won three Grammys her spoken-word albums and received an honorary National Book Award in 2013 for her contributions.
"Maya Angelou will always remain an Arkansas and American treasure," Gov. Mike Beebe said in a statement. "She drew from a troubled and painful childhood to write books and poems that have inspired countless others. From Stamps, Arkansas, to the steps of the U.S. Capitol for President Clinton's inauguration, Maya Angelou showed how strength, determination and honesty can take us all to the heights of greatness."
FoxNews.com's Joshua Rhett Miller and The Associated Press contributed to this report.