African Americans have appeared on television as long as the medium has been around. In fact, the first Black person on TV may have been Broadway star Ethel Waters, who hosted a one-off variety show on NBC on June 14, 1939, when television was still being developed. The medium evolved over the next decade as TVs became a household fixture, but roles for Black actors did not, with most being relegated to playing servants or providing comic relief.
Waters herself would make history in 1950 as the first African American to star in a show, Beulah, a sitcom about a maid serving a bungling white family, who got her employers out of scrapes in every episode. But the show, like its contemporary, Amos and Andy, relied heavily on caricatures of Black characters for laughs. Waters soon left the show, marking the beginning of a struggle to have Black lives and experiences portrayed in significant and accurate ways.
Since then, actors, producers and writers have created and starred in shows that pushed boundaries and broke barriers. Many shows also reflected what was going on in the country at large, from the civil rights era to the election of President Barack Obama, and beyond. Below are seven shows that helped move the needle in offering more rounded portrayals of African Americans and their experiences.
Broadway star Diahann Carroll became the first African American woman to receive an Emmy nomination in 1969, for her role as a widowed middle-class nurse raising a small son in the suburbs. Although the sitcom, which largely avoided tackling social and racial topics, was lambasted at the time by critics who said it did not reflect the lives of most Black Americans, Julia is now nevertheless considered groundbreaking. Carroll went on to join the cast of the popular primetime soap opera Dynasty in 1984 as the series only Black recurring character.
Soul Train (1971-2006)
Former journalist Don Cornelius may have seemed an unlikely person to bring a music-dance show to TV, but in wanting to showcase Black positivity on a national scale, he created a lasting legacy. Soul Train, the longest-running Black-owned TV show, brought Black entertainers like Aretha Franklin, James Brown and a myriad of other artists to a broad audience—and, at the same time, taught the country to dance.
Good Times (1974-1979)
If Julia offered what many saw as an aspirational version of Black life, this sitcom set in the Chicago housing projects shone a light on the reality of many who were struggling to get by. But at the heart of the show was the strong bond shared by the Evans family. Episodes showed how the family members stuck by each other in the face of unemployment, crime, racial bigotry and loss. Like The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son and All in the Family, the show was created by legendary producer and writer Norman Lear, who fought to get progressive sitcoms with diverse casts on the air.
The show wasn't without controversy, however. John Amos who played the father James Evans Sr. was dropped from the cast in 1975. Amos later said he had been let go for taking issue with what he described as a lack of diversity among the show's writers and how the sitcom's Black characters were portrayed.
The Jeffersons (1975-1985)
It began as a spinoff of All in the Family, but The Jeffersons ended up as the longest-running TV show ever featuring a mostly Black cast, spanning 11 seasons. The Jeffersons also featured one of TV’s most memorable characters ever—George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley)—who moves his family from Queens to a Manhattan high rise after building a successful dry cleaning business. Through George’s unapologetically confrontational personality, the show offered sharp commentary on race issues. It was also the first to feature an interracial couple (neighbors Helen and Tom Willis) prominently.
The Cosby Show (1984-1992) It was the biggest TV hit of the 1980s, often credited with reviving the sitcom genre. Sadly, the mega-successful show’s legacy has been marred by sexual assault conviction (and scores of rape allegations) against the show creator, Bill Cosby. Cosby also anchored the show as the playfully wise Heathcliff Huxtable, patriarch of a large, well-off Brooklyn family. Nevertheless, The Cosby Show brilliantly gave a wide audience a deep look at African American family life, culture and history, in between the laughs—all while being relatable to a wide audience.
A Different World (1987-1993)
The Cosby spinoff that followed Denise (Lisa Bonet) to the fictional Hillman college was an introduction to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) for many Americans. At a time when young African Americans were often stereotyped as criminals or drop-outs on TV and film, a sitcom portraying young, gifted and Black college students was a very necessary reality check.
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990-1996)
Fresh Prince didn’t exactly break new ground thematically. It basically replicated the formula of shows that centered around an upper-middle class Black family, in this case, one who takes in a poor relation from West Philadelphia. But the show did showcase the massive appeal of the largely unknown rapper Will Smith, catapulting him into a record-breaking film career as one of the biggest box office stars of all time.
In Living Color (1990-1994)
This seminal comedy sketch show was so popular that it spurred the production of A-list Super Bowl halftime shows. In 1992, creator Keenan Ivory Wayans put together a live show as counter-programming to Super Bowl XXVI’s marching band-filled halftime show. The ratings were so high that the NFL began booking top talent starting the next year.
In Living Color launched the careers of comedians Jaime Foxx, Jim Carrey, then-dancer Jennifer Lopez, as well as the Wayans brothers. It also pushed the envelope when it came to wide-ranging humor often laced with social commentary, paving the way for the equally sharp Chappelle Show.