Whether the mainstream likes it or not, Black actors and actresses are breaking down barriers that held them back for so long. In the past year we’ve seen shows like Atlanta, Master of None, Insecure, Empire and even reality show stars (hey, Cardi!) be recognized for their depiction of our varied Black experience. No longer are we a monolith —but we also must give thanks to the creatives who paved the way for us.
From the first all-Black cartoon series to the first Black woman to win a Primetime Emmy, here are 15 firsts in Black Hollywood that you need to check out.
1939: Ethel Waters becomes the first African-American to star in her own television show.
If you’re not familiar with her name, actress and singer Ethel Waters is someone you should do a little research on. Though she got her start in the 1920s singing blues, it was her 1962 Emmy nomination that helped her make history. Along with becoming the first Black woman to ever be nominated for the award, Waters — contrary to popular belief — became the first African-American to star in her own television show, ‘The Ethel Waters Show’, in 1939.
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1940: Hattie McDaniel becomes first African-American ever to win an Academy Award
Though much is always said and celebrated about the Oscar winnings of Sidney Poitier, Halle Berry and Denzel Washington, one person who is often left out is actress, singer and comedian, Hattie McDaniel. Becoming the first Black person to be nominated and win an Oscar during the 12th Annual Academy Awards in 1940 for her role in ‘Gone with the Wind’, the televised event was nothing but a predecessor for all the Black magic to come.
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1956: Nat King Cole becomes first African-American to host nationwide show.
While Ethel Waters was the first African-American to star in her own television show, Nat King Cole was the first African-American to have a nationwide show. The variety program, which was aptly titled ‘The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show’, debuted on NBC in 1956, but was unfortunately canceled a short year later due to lack of sponsorship.
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1963: Cicely Tyson becomes the first African-American to star in a TV drama.
Though controversial, Cicely Tyson’s role on the CBS drama ‘East Side/West Side’ has become historic. Starring as secretary Jane Foster, the celebrated actress appeared in 22 out of the 26 episodes of the show.
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Starring as Alexander “Scotty” Scott, Bill Cosby made history as the first Black actor to have a leading role in a television series with ‘I Spy’. The one-hour drama adventure series, which was Cosby’s first television role, ran for three seasons on NBC and earned him three Primetime Emmy Awards from 1966 to 1968.
1970: Gail Fisher becomes the first Black woman to win a Primetime Emmy.
Just eight short years after Ethel Waters broke the barrier for African-American women by being the first to be nominated for an Emmy, actress Gail Fisher sealed the deal. Nabbing the award in the category of Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in Drama for the show ‘Mannix’, Fisher became the first Black woman to win a Primetime Emmy in 1970.
With less than ten active years in the industry under his belt, comedian Bill Cosby makes Black history again as he created, produced, hosted and starred in the first cartoon with an all Black cast, ‘Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids’. Based on Cosby’s remembrance of his childhood friends, the show went on to run until 1985 and received an Emmy nomination in 1974.
1975: Roxie Roker becomes half of the first interracial couple on television.
Widely known as a talented actress and doting mother to artist Lenny Kravitz, Roxie Roker was a television trendsetter, too. While starring as Helen Willis on ‘The Jeffersons’, Roker became known as one half of the first interracial couple to appear on regular primetime television.
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1980: Robert L. Johnson and Sheila Johnson launch the first network catered toward African-Americans.
Initially launching as a two-hour a week programming block on Nickelodeon in 1980, BET — founded by former husband-wife duo Robert L. Johnson and Sheila Johnson — became the first network developed primarily for African-American viewers. Just three short years later, the network became a full-fledged channel and began its reign as a groundbreaking station. The two, though no longer owners of BET, are also cited as the first Black American male and female billionaires.
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1983: Vanessa Williams becomes the first Black Miss America.
In September 1983, the beauty pageant world changed forever as the first African-American woman, Vanessa L. Williams, was crowned Miss America on national television. Two months before he reign ended though, she was pressured into relinquishing her crown due to the leaking of unauthorized nude photos she had taken the year before. Thirty-two years later, when Williams was head judge for the Miss America 2016 pageant, the CEO of the pageant issued an overdue public apology for the events that took place during her controversial term.
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1989: Arsenio Hall nabs the title as the first Black late-night talk show host.
Just one year after co-starring in the hit film ‘Coming to America’, comedian Arsenio Hall broke late-night barriers by becoming the first Black late-night talk show host. ‘The Arsenio Hall Show’, which ran until 1994, became a breakout success and helped him to become a pop culture icon.
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The Proud Family
Though Disney Channel has grown to offer a more diverse cast in their shows, it wasn’t as easy to notice that before. So when the network debuted their animated sitcom ‘The Proud Family’, which centered around an all Black family, it quickly became a success. Going on to run until 2005, the show — now 11 years after its end — is still known as the only cartoon series on the network to have a Black cast as its lead characters.
2002: Halle Berry becomes first Black woman to win an Academy Award for Best Actress.
Placed in a category against established white actresses, Halle Berry found a way to shine bright on the night of the 74th Annual Academy Awards. Nabbing the Best Actress award for her role in 2001’s ‘Monster Ball’, the timeless actress made history as the first Black woman to win the award. Fifteen years later, she’s still the only Black woman to hold the title.
While Whoopi Goldberg may spend her current days hosting The View, the talented actress has much more to add to her résumé than that. Acting in over 150 films, Goldberg became the first African-American (and only to date) to have won an Emmy (2002), Grammy (1985), Oscar (1990), and Tony Award (2002) (EGOT). Only 12 people total have been able to accomplish this, with the latest achievement being listed in 2014.
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Lena Waithe and Donald Glover
At the 69th Emmy Awards on Sunday, writer, producer and actress Lena Waithe became the first Black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing. Waithe, who plays Denise in the Netflix series, ‘Master Of None’, won for penning the series’ acclaimed coming-out episode “Thanksgiving.” Donald Glover also became the first Black men to win for directing a comedy series.