Onetime United States poet laureate Maya Angelou was found dead today (Wednesday) inside her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was 86.

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  • She was born Marguerite Johnson on April 4th, 1928 in St. Louis.
  • Before achieving fame as a poet and author, she was active in the civil rights movement.
  • Her best-known book was 1970’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but many of her volumes hit the New York Times Best-Seller List.
  • Angelou will be best remembered for the poem she recited at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration.

Born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis in 1928, Maya had a rough start to life. She was constantly moving homes and was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, which scarred her and caused her to remain mute for six years. Her years in isolation continued into her 20s. At 16, she gave birth to her son, Guy, and soon after began to tour Europe and Africa with the musical Porgy and Bess. When she returned to U.S., she joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild, which helped guide her way into African activism and more serious writing.

In the early 1960s Angelou was active in the civil rights movement. She served as the northern coordinator of Martin Luther King Junior’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1962 she moved to Ghana with her son and worked at the University of Ghana's School of Music and Drama. She was also a feature editor for The African Review. Angelou returned to the U.S. in 1964 to help Malcolm X build the Organization of African American Unity.

Her five-volume autobiography commenced with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1970. Her 1971 volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her writings have been taught in schools, but have also been challenged by school boards and banned by libraries for controversy over her themes of identity, family and racism.

In 1993, Angelou was the second poet in history asked to read a work at a presidential inauguration. She wrote a poem, titled “On the Pulse of Morning,” at President Bill Clinton’s request and was named the nation's poet laureate. She also became a regular on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show and was soon America’s most famous living poet.

In 2006, Angelou began hosting a weekly show on XM radio. Most recently, she taught at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where she held a lifetime position as the Reynolds Professor of American Studies.

Angelou was married and divorced three times. She leaves behind her son, Guy.

PHOTOS: Remembering Maya Angelou