Boundary-Breaking Black Women in Entertainment

Boundary-Breaking Black Women in Entertainment

What would Black History Month be without stories to inspire and motivate? In celebration of this exciting month, we present to you our favorite boundary-breaking Black women who have not only entertained us, but have also inspired us to not be afraid to kick down barriers. From Oprah Winfrey to Dorothy Dandridge, each of these women have done their part to better our culture. Take a look at our favorite boundary-breaking Black women.

Lena Horne

The legendary singer and actress was the first Black woman to sign a long-term contract with a film studio in 1942. Refusing to play a maid, she went on to star in classics like “Stormy Weather” and “Cabin in the Sky.”

Mary J. Blige

Affectionately called the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul,” Mary J. Blige is a living legend in the music industry.

Billie Holiday

An American jazz singer and songwriter, Holiday was one of the first Black women to work with an all-white orchestra (with Artie Shaw) in 1938. In her lifetime she would put out some of the most memorable jazz classics. Her unforgettable voice and musical style continue to be celebrated today.

Marian Anderson

In 1955, Anderson broke the color barrier by becoming the first African-American to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah’s show is one of the highest-rated programs of its kind in history. Along with breaking many other barriers in humanitarian efforts and media, Oprah adds billionaire and cable network chairman to her extensive portfolio.

Diana Ross

From her days as lead singer of The Supremes to her solo singing and acting career, Diana Ross’s effortless style and angelic voice, inspired generations of Black women.

Nina Simone

A prolific singer, songwriter, pianist, and civil rights activist, Nina Simone not only sang the songs of a generation, she laid a musical foundation for years to come. Today, her songs can be heard as samples on a number of hip-hop songs.

Diahann Carroll

Considered one of the most beautiful women of our time, legendary actress Diahann Carroll broke boundaries when she starred in her own television sitcom, “Julia,” a first for an African-American woman. She was also the first Black woman to win a Tony Award (1962), and a Golden Globe Award (1968).

Althea Gibson

In 1956 Gibson became the first Black woman to be a competitor on the world tennis tour and the first to win a Grand Slam title.

Vanessa L. Williams

Actress and singer Vanessa L. Williams was the first Black woman to be crowned Miss America in 1983. The multi-talented New York native has gone on to break boundaries in television and music.

Lauryn Hill

After going solo from the Fugees, and releasing her debut, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” Hill became the first female musician to win five Grammy’s in one night.

Aretha Franklin

Franklin is not only one of the giants of soul music and of American pop as a whole, in 1987 she became the first woman, and first Black woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Hattie McDaniel

McDaniel was first Black performer to win an Academy Award. She won the award for Best Supporting Actress for her role a Mammy in “Gone with the Wind” in 1939.

Sheila Johnson

Johnson made her fortune with her ex-husband Bob Johnson as co-founder of the Black Entertainment Television (BET), one of the most influential cable channels of our generation. She soon became the first African-American woman billionaire (before Oprah). After selling BET Johnson went on to become part owner of three sports teams, including the Washington Mystics (WNBA), Washington Wizards (NBA) and the Washington Capitals (NHL). She got game.

Gwendolyn Brooks

In 1949 poet Gwendolyn Brooks became the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature. In her lifetime Brooks had more than 20 books published and she was appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985.

Lorraine Hansberry

Playwright and author of political speeches, Lorraine Hansberry is an American icon. Her classic “A Raisin in the Sun” was the first play written by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway.

Ma Rainey

Mother of the blues, Gertrude Rainey, was the first woman to record a blues record in 1920.

Toni Morrison

In 1993, Morrison became the first Black woman to win a Nobel Prize for Literature. She also won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel, “Beloved.”

Halle Berry

In 2001, Berry became the first African American to win an Academy Award for Best Actress for “Monster’s Ball.”

Tyra Banks

Supermodel Tyra Banks has broken boundaries for women of color overall. In 1997 she became the first Black woman to grace the coveted cover of Sports Illustrated. From her days as a supermodel to the present, where she is one of a handful of Black women to have her own production company, Bankable Productions, which produces the uber successful show, “America’s Next Top Model.”


Words cannot describe the impact that Beyonce has had on a generation. She is one of music’s wealthiest and influential women, and a record holder for most Grammys won in a night (six-she took the title from Lauryn Hill). She even coined the term, “Bootylicious.” Not bad for a shy girl from Houston.

Whitney Houston

Houston has had enough achievements to last her many lifetimes. From being one of the most successful singers of her time to having one of the best-selling songs — “I Will Always Love You” — of all time. We will always love you Whitney!

Maya Angelou

Besides penning some of the most memorable prose of our time, Angelou has earned numerous awards including a Pulitzer Prize. Her poem and novels continue to influence generations, regardless of race.

Queen Latifah

Queen Latifah has not only only broken boundaries in hip hop, but Hollywood as well. In 2001, she became the first female hip hop artist to be nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress in a Supporting Role for “Chicago.” She is also a media mogul in training, with her own production company.

Venus and Serena Williams

Before Venus and Serena Williams the world had never imagined two Black girls from Compton could grow up to become tennis champions. But they did, over and over again, smashing stereotypes and inspiring generations of girls along the way.

Mariah Carey

Carey holds the record for the second-most number one singles by an artist. With 20 number one’s under her belt, she even surpasses Elvis.

Zora Neale Hurston

Hurston is considered one of the pre-eminent writers of twentieth-century in African-American literature.

Janet Jackson

Five-time Grammy winner Janet Jackson has so much world-wide appeal that she can sell out a concert within seconds. The youngest of the Jackson clan has masterfully upheld her family’s entertainment legacy. Go Janet!

Nicki Minaj

Newcomer Nicki Minaj is already making her mark. The pint-sizd rapper with a super-sized personality recently broke Lauryn Hill’s record by selling the most albums in a week by a female hip hop artist.

Ella Fitzgerald

Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald’s voice is considered one of America’s finest. This jazzy lady was the first Black woman to win a Grammy in 1958.

Dorothy Dandridge

Considered Hollywood’s first major Black film star, Dorothy Dandridge also became the first African American nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1954. Star of the classic musical “Carmen Jones,” Dandridge was also the first African-American woman to grace the cover of Life magazine.

Cathy Hughes

Also known as ‘Ms. Radio," Hughes, founder and chairperson of Radio One, is one of entertainment’s hardest working women. She is also the first Black woman to head a publicly traded company.

Della Reese

In 1970, the singer-actress became the first African American woman to guest host The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland is the first Black female soloist at American Ballet Theatre. The Missouri native has been dancing since she was 13 and has appeared in productions of Romeo and Juliet, Don Quixote and more.

Shonda Rhimes

This talented scribe created the successful show, “Grey’s Anatomy.” Each week roughly 18.5 million viewers tune in to watch what is now dubbed as the new ABC/Touchstone. She is the first Black woman to create and executive produce a successful hour-long drama on network TV.