Carroll Becomes the First African American Woman to Star as a Non-domestic on Television Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the fall of 1968, with the debut of the situation comedy Julia, singer and actor Diahann Carroll became the first African American woman to star as a non-domestic in a weekly television series—comedy or drama.

Summary of Event

The premiere of Julia in the late 1960’s did not mark the first time that an African American woman took the leading role in a television series. In the 1940’s, the popular radio series Fibber McGee and Molly Fibber McGee and Molly (radio program) featured in its supporting cast a maid called Beulah, who became so popular with listeners that she was spun off into her own radio series. In 1950, when the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) decided to bring Beulah Beulah (television program) to television, producers faced a serious problem: the role had been played for years by a white man. African Americans;performers Television;comedies Television;African Americans Situation comedies Comedies;television Julia (television program) [kw]Carroll Becomes the First African American Woman to Star as a Non-domestic on Television (Sept. 17, 1968) [kw]First African American Woman to Star as a Non-domestic on Television, Carroll Becomes the (Sept. 17, 1968) [kw]African American Woman to Star as a Non-domestic on Television, Carroll Becomes the First (Sept. 17, 1968) [kw]Woman to Star as a Non-domestic on Television, Carroll Becomes the First African American (Sept. 17, 1968) [kw]Television, Carroll Becomes the First African American Woman to Star as a Non-domestic on (Sept. 17, 1968) African Americans;performers Television;comedies Television;African Americans Situation comedies Comedies;television Julia (television program) [g]North America;Sept. 17, 1968: Carroll Becomes the First African American Woman to Star as a Non-domestic on Television[09920] [g]United States;Sept. 17, 1968: Carroll Becomes the First African American Woman to Star as a Non-domestic on Television[09920] [c]Radio and television;Sept. 17, 1968: Carroll Becomes the First African American Woman to Star as a Non-domestic on Television[09920] [c]Popular culture;Sept. 17, 1968: Carroll Becomes the First African American Woman to Star as a Non-domestic on Television[09920] [c]Social issues and reform;Sept. 17, 1968: Carroll Becomes the First African American Woman to Star as a Non-domestic on Television[09920] [c]Women’s issues;Sept. 17, 1968: Carroll Becomes the First African American Woman to Star as a Non-domestic on Television[09920] Carroll, Diahann Nolan, Lloyd Tuttle,Lurene

The decision was made to recast the role for TV. The widely respected and admired African American singer and actor Ethel Waters Waters, Ethel was hired to star as Beulah, now employed—on the comedy—by a family called Henderson, whose problems she sorted out in each week’s episode. The series was an enormous hit, but, dissatisfied with its stereotyped portrayal of African Americans, Waters left the series at the end of its second season. Character actor Louise Beavers Beavers, Louise replaced her, but she too soon left the show, and the series was canceled at the end of its third season.

Thereafter, a number of African American actresses were featured in supporting roles in series, but always as servants of some sort. It was not until the 1963-1964 season that an African American woman appeared in a supporting role in a series as something other than a domestic: Cicely Tyson Tyson, Cicely played George C. Scott’s secretary in East Side/West Side East Side/West Side (television program)[East Side West Side] on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). When Diahann Carroll debuted in the lead role in the half-hour comedy series Julia on September 17, 1968, she was making U.S. television history as the first African American woman to head the cast of a series in which that lead character did not play a domestic servant.

Other than the casting of Carroll, much about Julia was highly conventional. Julia Baker was a nurse working for the company doctor of an aerospace corporation, and she was a widow with a small son named Corey. The plots of most of the episodes derived from problems at work, the escapades of young Corey and his best friend Earl, the antics of Earl’s rather eccentric parents, and Julia’s adventures in dating. The supporting cast was superb. Hollywood veteran Lloyd Nolan played the doctor for whom Julia worked, and seasoned character actors Mary Wickes Wickes, Mary and Lurene Tuttle played his wife and his nurse, respectively. Paul Winfield Winfield, Paul , who later was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor for Sounder, played Julia’s sweetheart from 1968 to 1970. Both Marc Copage Copage, Marc , who played Corey, and Michael Link Link, Michael , who played his pal Earl, were very much in the best tradition of American sitcom children of the 1950’s and 1960’s: unbelievably photogenic but so natural in their portrayals that they hardly seemed to be acting. Guest stars included such people as Diana Sands, one of the most acclaimed African American actors of the time. Carroll herself drew praise for her gentle, understated approach to her role in an era in which much comedy on TV was frenetic and forced, and she was nominated for an Emmy Award for best actress in 1968.

In large part because of this traditional approach, Julia drew criticism from some critics and commentators for not addressing racial issues more directly and more often. Julia Baker and her son navigated too easily and comfortably, such critics thought, through their racially diverse but predominantly white workplace, school, and neighborhood. Racism and discrimination were rarely even mentioned, much less depicted or addressed. Typical of the series’ low-keyed handling of race is an exchange in the pilot episode, in which Julia is being interviewed over the phone by her soon-to-be boss Morton Chegley. After he expresses approval and seems about to offer her a job in his office, Julia gently explains to the doctor that there is something he needs to know: “I’m colored,” she says. Without missing a beat, Dr. Chegley quips, “What color are you?” and hires her, sight unseen.

Though these complaints might not be without merit, much of what was good about the series derived from this selfsame utopian aspect. Julia may not have appeared until the decade was almost over, but it was nevertheless very much in the best spirit of the 1960’s: idealistic, optimistic, millennial. The racial environment depicted by the series may not have been strictly realistic, but it reflected quite faithfully the goal toward which civil rights workers and social activists of the decade strove: an America in which ethic diversity is a given and in which harmony among races seems the natural order of things. Julia may not have depicted African Americans in a realistic struggle for equality but it certainly provided a glowing model for the hopes and dreams of Americans of all ethnicities. This matter of models figures in another important positive aspect of Julia, the role model that the heroine provided. For the very first time, young people watching television across America were presented with an African American woman—who was young and professional—as the focus of attention within a series.

On the question of realism and sociopolitical issues, many critics of the time who dismissed the series often overlooked a small but important fact about the background story for Julia. Julia Baker was a widow, because her husband was killed in Vietnam. The primary memento that Julia and Corey had of their deceased husband and father, one that was shown from time to time throughout the run of the series, was a photo of him in uniform, gently reminding the audience of how and where he had died. At a time in U.S. history during which even dramatic television series and mainstream films were reluctant to treat the war in Vietnam, this small element in an otherwise genial situation comedy was almost as groundbreaking as Diahann Carroll’s position as lead actor in her own series.

Significance

The significance of any first accomplishment is that it provides a precedent for a second, a third, and more to follow. Julia proved to television executives and programmers that a series headed by an African American woman could be a success. However, perhaps just as important as the series’ status as a breakthrough event in American entertainment is its apparent influence on what later became the single most successful situation comedy to feature an African American cast, The Cosby Show, Cosby Show, The (television program) which debuted in September, 1984, becoming a runaway hit that appeared on television for more than a decade. In designing this series, Bill Cosby and his producers clearly had studied the approach taken by the creators of Julia, for they followed it to the letter.

Sixteen years earlier, Julia took an almost trite sitcom formula—a single parent with a cute, mischievous kid, involved in amusing interactions with crusty bosses and wacky neighbors—and used its safe format as a way to ensure the success of an African American-themed series. Cosby did precisely the same: it relied on the tried-and-true template of a classic American family sitcom (somewhat bumbling, laid-back dad, no-nonsense mom, sarcastic teenagers, cute moppets) to make something new—a series about an African American upper middle-class family—seem familiar and thereby more accessible to viewers. African Americans;performers Television;comedies Television;African Americans Situation comedies Comedies;television Julia (television program)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bogle, Donald. Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2001. Perhaps the best book on the subject, by an authority on African Americans in the entertainment industry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present. 8th ed. New York: Ballantine, 2003. A truly essential tool for any research on television programming. A National Book Award winner.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carroll, Diahann, with Ross Firestone. Diahann: An Autobiography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1986. A fascinating firsthand account not only of the making of Julia but also of other accomplishments in Carroll’s diverse career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith-Shomade, Beretta E. Shaded Lives: African American Women and Television. Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002. A scholarly yet practical and accessible treatment of the subject of African American women in television.

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