Before we say goodbye to Black History Month, we’re honoring some pioneers in the TV medium who overcame obstacles to diversify the American cultural experience.
From the first Black actor to appear on TV to a media mogul who ranks among the country’s wealthiest people, these 41 performers and creatives changed television and paved the way for those that followed.
Here is a timeline featuring Black TV trailblazers and over 65 of their firsts:
Ethel Waters was the first Black performer seen on television. Her one-night variety special, The Ethel Waters Show, aired on NBC in 1939. She was joined by fellow Black actresses, Fredi Washington and Georgette Harvey, and they performed part of her play Mamba’s Daughters. Waters in 1962 would also become the first Black person to be nominated for an Emmy with her nomination for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for her work in episode “Goodnight, Sweet Blues” in the CBS adventure series Route 66. She is credited also as being the first Black woman to appear on radio, as well as several other “firsts.”
In 1948, Randolph starred in the DuMont network’s The Laytons. The sitcom was short-lived (it only ran from August to October of that year), but it marked the first time American TV audiences could regularly see a Black woman on a series. Randolph performs above in a photo from the 1944 musical program Amanda and the Boys.
As Waters’ program only lasted one night, 1950’s The Hazel Scott Show gets the credit for being the first series to have a Black host, according to American film historian Donald Bogle in his book Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television. The 15-minute-long program, which first aired at 7:45 p.m. Fridays – and later ran on Mondays and Wednesdays, as well – was a musical format and featured Scott, a former child prodigy who had made a name for herself in tony New York supper clubs and movies like 1943’s Something to Shout About (pictured above) and 1945’s Rhapsody in Blue.
The two celebrated performers were both nominated in the since-retired category of Primetime Emmy Award for Best Specialty Act – Single or Group in 1956. Belafonte would go on to become the first Black performer to win an Emmy with his TV special “Tonight With Belafonte,” which was part of The Revlon Revue. Davis Jr. went on to be nominated for Outstanding Variety Act (1966) for The Swinging World of Sammy Davis Jr., Outstanding Cameo and Guest Appearances for One Live to Live (1980) and The Cosby Show (1989), eventually winning an Emmy for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy for Sammy Davis Jr.’s 60th Anniversary Celebration (1990).
The renowned singer of such hits as “Unforgettable,” “L.O.V.E.,” and “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66” was the first Black entertainer with a network TV series. The Nat King Cole Show ran for one season on NBC. His guests included legendary talent like Ella Fitzgerald, pictured with Cole above.
Though the Television Academy has nominated three, no Black writer has won an Emmy for writing a drama series. The first nomination went to playwright Peterson in 1957 for NBC’s Goodyear Playhouse episode “Joey,” which starred Anthony Perkins in the title role. (The two other nominees were David Mills in both 1996 and 1997 for NYPD Blue and Shonda Rhimes in 2006 for Grey’s Anatomy.) Peterson cowrote the screenplay for 1959 film Take a Giant Step (pictured), based on his play of the same name.
Tyson starred in the series East Side/West Side, which premiered in 1963, and later won the 1974 Emmy Award for her starring role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. She is also the first Black woman to receive an honorary Oscar.
The I Spy star won this category three years in a row and is the first Black actor to be nominated for and win a primetime Emmy and for a drama. Cosby went on to create and host the first all-Black cartoon, 1972’s Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids — introduced in 1969 primetime special Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert — and starred as Cliff Huxtable in popular sitcom The Cosby Show, which ran from 1984 to 1992. He was also the first Black entertainer to win the Outstanding Variety or Musical Program Emmy for The Bill Cosby Special in 1969. Cosby’s achievements have been largely overshadowed in recent years by his conviction on three counts of aggravated sexual assault and reports highlighting other allegations.
Diahann Carroll was the first Black woman to star in a TV series in a role that was not a housekeeper. Julia ran on NBC from 1968 to 1971, and Carroll starred as widowed nurse Julia Baker, raising a young son after the death of her husband in the Vietnam War.
Singer and actress Eartha Kitt took over the role as villain Catwoman on the 1960s live-action superhero series Batman from Julie Newmar, becoming the first Black entertainer to be cast in a comic book–based role. Though she only appeared in five episodes, Catwoman became one of her best-known roles.
The former singer tried her hand at a talk show after also making history as the first woman ever to guest-host The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Though the series lasted only one season, the entertainer forged a path for the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Queen Latifah, Tyra Banks, and Wendy Williams.
Comedian Flip Wilson received an Emmy for Outstanding Variety Series – Musical for his wildly successful comedy series The Flip Wilson Show. The show ran for four seasons and enjoyed significant commercial success with an estimated audience of nearly 16.8 million in its first season, putting it second only to Marcus Welby, M.D. that year. The series increased its audience to 17.5 million in its second season (though it again took second place in ratings for the year — this time after All in the Family). Wilson is pictured above with guests Lena Horne and Tony Randall in a February 1974 episode.
Winning on her first nomination, Fisher was nominated three more times in the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series Emmy category for her role as secretary Peggy Fair on Mannix. ”I was the first black female — no, make that black, period — to make a national TV commercial, on camera, with lines,” she said about her pitch for All detergent, according to a 2001 New York Times obituary. She went on to make guest appearances on Fantasy Island, General Hospital, Knight Rider, and other shows from the mid-1970s through 1990.
Graves starred in ABC crime-drama Get Christie Love! as an undercover police officer. She is credited the first Black woman to lead a network drama and the second Black woman to star in an hour-long series after Diahann Carroll in sitcom Julia. A Jehovah’s Witness, she retired from acting soon after the series to devote her time to religion.
The eight-part miniseries, based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, broke viewership records at the time of its airing. Nielsen put viewership of the show’s finale at just over one half of the U.S. population, which was 220 million at the time. The series portrayed slavery from Africa in the mid-1700s to post-Civil War America and spawned a sequel, Roots: The Next Generations, that continued the story into the 19th and 20th centuries. The original series garnered 37 Primetime Emmy nominations and won nine, including Best Limited Series. The author is pictured above with series star LeVar Burton, who went on to be nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor for a Single Appearance in a Drama or Comedy Series for his role as Kunta Kinte in episode “Part 1.”
His Roots costars John Amos, Levar Burton, and Ben Vereen were also nominated in the Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie category, but Gossett Jr. made history with his win. Gossett Jr. is pictured above left with costar Burton in a production still from Roots.
Cole’s performance as Kizzy in Roots won her the first award for a Black actress in the category of Supporting Actress in a Comedy or Drama Series, Single Appearance.
Hanna-Barbera’s Super Friends series featured classic DC Comics characters Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Batman and Robin. In 1977, The All-New Super Friends Hour introduced TV’s first Black superhero, Black Vulcan (voiced by Buster Jones), a flying character who can manipulate lightning. The character was controversial because he essentially replaced DC Comics superhero Black Lightning, who the company could not get rights to portray. Black Vulcan appeared in his first adventure in episode “The Whirlpool,” teaming up with Aquaman to rescue an oil tanker.
As co-anchor of the ABC’s World News Tonight, Robinson made history in July 1978 as the first Black anchor of a network news program. A decade later, Carole Simpson became the first Black woman to anchor a major network news show as weekend anchor at ABC News.
The Benson star was the first Black actor to win in the lead actor in a comedy category. He won on his fifth nomination for his role as Benson DuBois, the same character that previously won the actor the comedy supporting actor Emmy for Soap.
In January 1980, former husband-and-wife team Robert L. Johnson and Sheila Johnson founded Black Entertainment Television (BET) as a programming block on Madison Square Garden network (now USA Network). Three years later, the network became its own channel. The company was also the first Black-owned company listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and the Johnsons are considered the first Black billionaires. In 2003, Robert Johnson also became the first Black U.S. principal owner of a North American major-league sports franchise with the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets). Viacom bought the network in 2000.
Nominated in the Lead Actress in a Comedy Series category seven times for her role as Weezy on The Jeffersons, Sanford won once (on her third nomination).
Allen was nominated for lead actress for her role as performing arts high school faculty member Lydia Grant in NBC drama Fame. She didn’t win that award, but did make history as the first Black choreographer to win the Emmy for Outstanding Choreography for episode “Come One, Come All.” She won two more Emmys for her choreography: in 1993, for her Fame choreography in episode “Class Act,” and in 1991, for her work on Motown 30: What’s Goin’ On! She has been nominated for 14 Emmys.
Media mogul Winfrey worked her way out of an impoverished childhood to become a daytime talk show phenomenon and the owner of her own production company, Harpo Productions, and subsidiaries like Oprah Winfrey Network. She was listed at No. 319 on the 2019 Forbes 400 list and is now regularly touted as the most influential woman in the entertainment industry — and often “in the world.” She is an author and a 13-time Daytime Emmy Award winner. She was awarded the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award during the 2002 Primetime Emmys and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2012 Academy Awards. She recently partnered with Apple TV+ to develop documentaries and series including her current show Oprah’s Book Club.
Jackée — Harry’s stage name — played Sandra Clark opposite star Marla Gibbs’ Mary Jenkins in NBC comedy series 227, about relationships between neighbors in a Washington, D.C., apartment building. Gibbs was the first Black actress nominated in the category in 1981 for her role as Florence Johnston on The Jeffersons. Jackée went on to star as Lisa Landry on ABC/The WB sitcom Sister, Sister, Vanessa in Everybody Hates Chris, and JoAnn Payne in The Paynes, among many other roles. In the same ceremony, The Golden Girls producer Winifred Hervey made history accepting an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series.
Comedian and actor Hall was well known for filling in on The Late Show and for his role as Semmi, best friend to Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem in 1988 comedy Coming to America before he kicked off his own talk show, The Arsenio Hall Show.
NBC’s Saturday Night Live (1975) may have featured the highest-profile Black sketch-comedy actors — including founding player Garrett Morris and, joining in 1980, Eddie Murphy — but In Living Color, created by Keenen Ivory Wayans and lasting for five seasons on Fox, was a disruptive force in the world of sketch comedy. “We became this bridge in America between white suburban kids and urban kids,” Wayans tells author David Peisner in Homey Don’t Play That!, a history of series. The revolutionary show featured a diverse cast and introduced hip-hop to the mainstream. It also launched the careers of actors Jamie Foxx, Jim Carrey, Tommy Davidson, David Alan Grier, and T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh and writers Larry Wilmore and Colin Quinn and introduced Jennifer Lopez and Carrie Ann Inaba as part of its dance troupe The Fly Girls, performing the choreography of actress Rosie Perez. The series won the Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series Emmy for its first season.
HBO movie Miss Evers’ Boys brought together two history makers to make history once more. Executive producer Laurence Fishburne became the first Black producer to win in the category. Emmys also went to Alfre Woodard for her role as Eunice Evers, Michael Brown for Editing for a Miniseries or a Special, and Donald M. Morgan for Cinematography for a Miniseries or a Special. Previously in 1987, Woodard was the first Black actress to win an Emmy for Guest Actress in a Drama Series in L.A. Law, then in 1993, Fishburne was the first Black actor to win Guest Actor in a Drama Series Emmy for his role in Tribeca. Also in 1997, Chris Rock was the first Black writer to win the Writing for a Variety Special Emmy for Chris Rock: Bring the Pain.
Former journalist Mills was nominated twice for writing on drama series NYPD Blue and received an Emmy in the Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special category for The Corner. He is the first, and only, Black person to win in this category. Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright August Wilson was the first Black writer nominated in the category in 1995, for Hallmark Hall of Fame special The Piano Lesson. Also in 2000, Charles S. Dutton became the first Black director to win in the Directing for a Miniseries or a Movie category, for The Corner.
In 2002, Goldberg became the first Black entertainer to EGOT (that is, win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) with her Daytime Emmy Award (Outstanding Special Class Special as host of Beyond Tara: The Extraordinary Life of Hattie McDaniel) and her Tony Award for Best Musical for Thoroughly Modern Millie that year. Goldberg is now the host of 30-time Daytime Emmy award winner The View. She won the 1986 Grammy Award for Best Comedy Recording for Whoopi Goldberg Original Broadway Show Record and the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Ghost in 1991.
In Living Color writer, The Daily Show’s former “Senior Black Correspondent,” award-winning producer for Black-ish, and Insecure co-creator, Wilmore won the Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series Emmy for The Bernie Mac Show, for which he also won a Peabody award.
Shonda Rhimes became the first woman to create and executive produce a top 10 network series with the founding of her production company, Shondaland, and her hit ABC primetime show Grey’s Anatomy. With that show’s enormous momentum, Rhimes built a TV empire that also included: Private Practice, Off the Map, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, The Catch, Still Star-Crossed, For the People, and Station 19. Winfrey is an Emmy-winning producer for 1999’s Tuesdays with Morrie, which won Outstanding Made for Television Movie. She is now creating shows for Netflix in a deal reportedly starting at $150 million with incentives, according to the New York Times. “I am the highest-paid showrunner in television,” Shonda Rhimes said at Elle magazine’s 25th annual Women in Hollywood event in October 2018, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The incentives in Rhimes’ deal must be bonkers, considering that Ryan Murphy’s five-year Netflix deal is reportedly worth $300 million, and Greg Berlanti’s four-year contract extension at Warner Bros TV is worth $400 million.
On November 12, 2011, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences awarded Jones an honorary Oscar making him the first Black actor to EGOT. (See also: John Legend in 2019.) Jones had previously won the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series Emmy for playing Gabriel Bird in Gabriel’s Fire and Supporting Actor in a Miniseries Emmy for his role as Junius Johnson in Heat Wave (both in 1990), the Best Spoken Word Grammy in 1977 for Great American Documents, and a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for his role as fighter Jack Johnson in The Great White Hope (1969) and a second best actor Tony for his role as Troy Maxson in Fences (1997).
How to Get Away With Murder star Davis made history in an awards category where it was long overdue: the first Black actress to win an Emmy as the lead in a dramatic series. Davis would be nominated four more times for her role as Annalise Keating. Two years after her Emmy victory, Davis won her first Academy Award in the Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role category for her role as Rose Maxson in the film adaptation of Fences.
Drag queen and music-maker RuPaul peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s Dance Music Charts with 1992 song “Supermodel (You Better Work).” He later became a TV phenom with reality series RuPaul’s Drag Race, in which drag queens compete to be selected America’s next drag superstar, and won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program. He has received six Emmys overall for the show. Also that year, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele received the Variety Sketch Series Emmy for their Comedy Central series Key & Peele. The category was relatively new, with the Outstanding Variety Series split in 2015 into Variety Talk Series and Variety Sketch Series.
Having made a huge splash in feature films as director and executive producer of critically acclaimed 2015 film Selma, DuVernay won two Emmys for 13th: She is the first Black writer to win for Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming and Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special. The film was also nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category at the 2017 Academy Awards. She was nominated for the Outstanding Directing for a Nonfiction Program Emmy, but lost to Ezra Edelman, who is the first Black director to win the category and won for his work on O.J.: Made in America. In the same year, W. Kamau Bell was the first Black producer to win for Unstructured Reality Program for CNN series United Shades of America.
Lena Waithe is the first Black woman to win a comedy writing Emmy, an honor she accepted with her Master of None costar (and the series’ co-creator) Aziz Ansari in 2017. Titled “Thanksgiving,” the episode was part of the Netflix program’s second season and is a personal one for Waithe, as it follows her character’s relationship with her mother and how that evolved once she told her she was a lesbian. In her acceptance speech, Waithe spoke of the importance of diversity, both in entertainment and in society: “The things that make us different — those are our superpowers.”
Actor and musician Donald Glover (known as Childish Gambino in his music career) has only ever directed for television on his award-winning comedy series Atlanta. He is the first Black director to win in the category and took two awards that year, including Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. While writing on the Tina Fey series 30 Rock, Glover also took home five Writers Guild of America awards.
John Legend became the first male Black entertainer to EGOT in competitive categories with his 2018 Emmy for Outstanding Variety Special (Live) for Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert. Legend has 10 Grammy awards (out of 29 nominations). He received his first Grammy was for Best New Artist in 2006, and won his Oscar in 2015 for cowriting, with collaborator Common, the Best Original Song “Glory” from the film Selma. Legend received his Tony Award in 2017 for coproducing Best Revival of a Play winner Jitney. Legend is also the youngest EGOT winner ever. In the same ceremony, Dave Chappelle, Stan Lathan, Rikki Hughes won Variety Special (Pre-Recorded) Emmys for Dave Chappelle: Equanimity.
Pose star Porter is the first openly gay Black man to be nominated for and win an Emmy in a lead actor category. His Lead Actor in a Drama Series win was for his role as emcee and fashion designer Pray Tell in the FX series.