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The History of Black Television
By Kimberlee Buck, Staff Writer
Published February 8, 2018

A look at television’s most groundbreaking sitcoms and series during the 1950s to present day.

The Civil Rights Movement was a fight for Blacks to gain equal rights under federal law. However, the movement was more than a platform for social justice; it also broke barriers for Blacks in the entertainment and television industry. Although slavery had been abolished, discrimination and racism still existed especially in mainstream television. Blacks continued to portray servant roles in mainstream movies and perform racist caricatures. This week the Los Angeles Sentinel celebrates Black History month and Black culture by taking a look back at the evolution of African American television and sitcoms.

“Amos n’ Andy”: Tim Moore, top, playing the roguish but likeable Kingfish, Spencer Williams, lower left, as the gullible and romantically-involved Andy, and Alvin Childress as the homey, logic-minded Amos are back with the release of 20 episodes of “The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show” on videocassette. The move has contributed to a reassessment of the series and its place in popular culture. The 1951-53 CBS show was the target of determined protests by the NAACP and has been virtually invisible since it was pulled from syndication in 1966. (photo courtesy: AP Photo)

Amos ‘n’ Andy (1951-1953)

In 1951, the comedy show, “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” hit the screens. The show was centered on The Kingfish’s get rich schemes which usually involved tricking his brothers. Many viewers found that the show ignored real-life problems Blacks faced, portrayed an inaccurate idea of the Black middle class, and perpetuated demeaning stereotypes. On the other hand, some argued that the show provided jobs for Black actors and “normalized Black life.”

Shortly after the show aired, Nielsen ratings ranked “Amos ‘n’ Andy” number 13. Once the NAACP caught wind of ratings, the association initiated a boycott of its sponsor Blatz Beer. In April Blatz Beer withdrew its sponsorship. However, CBS, continued the syndication of the series more than four times. In fact, the show remained in syndication for 13 years after it was withdrawn from the network schedule.

“I Spy”: Comedian Bill Cosby alongside his co-star, Robert Culp. (courtesy photo)

I Spy (1965-1968)

Who remembers the show “I Spy” starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby? The 1960’s television series was about a pair of intelligence agents posing as a tennis pro and his coach going on secret missions around the world. Although “I Spy” was a significant breakdown of Black stereotypes it created an invisible standard for Black actors on primetime TV; Blacks are acceptable as long as they are partnered with white co-stars.

“Roots”: LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte in a scene from 1977’s ‘Roots’ (photo courtesy: Time Magazine)

Roots (1977)

During the 1970s, viewers began to see an increase in the number of roles for Black actors. Additionally, Black middle class and political influence began to grow. In 1977, the seven part mini-series “Roots” became the first major TV drama to feature a primarily Black cast, and tackle the issue of racism and slavery in primetime television. “Roots” was also one of the first of its kind to capture racial oppressions, lynching, and much more in a historical setting. The series was shown in 85 percent of homes in the U.S. and is still used today in classrooms around the world to jumpstart the conversation on Black history and slavery. 

“Soul Train”: Youth show off their dance moves on America’s favorite dance show “Soul Train” (photo courtesy: National Museum of African American Music)

Soul Train (1971-2006)

“Soul Train” dubbed America’s favorite dance show was the longest running and groundbreaking show of all time. The music-dance show, which ran for 35 years, featured performances from R&B, soul, pop and hip hop artists; as well as funk, jazz, disco and gospel artists.  The show’s host, Don Cornelius, who started his career as a beat cop turned DJ, wanted to create a show that would have Black teens dancing to the latest hits by Black musicians. His inspiration came after the Civil Rights Movement. Cornelius believed there was a need for “Black joy” on television and thus “Soul Train” was created. Cornelius’ push for the show to air on networks was a struggle. In fact, he received much rejection. Critics claimed the show would be “hard to sell to affiliates in the South.” Although Cornelius agreed to syndicate the show, stations around the country either didn’t air it or “buried the episodes” in late-night time slots. Despite many setbacks “Soul Train” became a hit!

The Jeffersons & Sanford and Son (1970s)

The “Jeffersons” (1975-1985) is known as one of the top sitcoms of all time. The show depicted a Black family living the “American Dream.” The show focused on characters George and Louise Jefferson who stumbled upon a large sum of money. The couple, along with their son Lionel, move from Queens to a deluxe, luxury apartment in Manhattan.

“Sanford and Son” (1972-1977) is a U.S. version of the British show, “Steptoe and Son.” The comedy show is widely known for being a model of a successful African American sitcom, and is about the misadventures of a “cantankerous junk dealer” and his frustrated son.

“Cosby Show”: The Cast of the “Cosby Show” (photo courtesy: Bio.com)

The Cosby Show (1984-1992)

Bill Cosby hit television screens in the early 1960s and has since become a trailblazer in the entertainment industry. In 1984, Cosby alongside Phylicia Rashad, Sabrina Lebeauf, Lisa Bonet, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Tempestt Bledsoe, and Keshia Knight Pulliam starred in the “Cosby Show.” The television series was one of the first of its kind to have a primarily Black cast. The show proved to naysayers that you can have an all-Black cast and become successful without leaning on the shoulders of white actors to bring in the ratings.  The comedy show highlighted Black culture, history and touched on contemporary social issues.

“Different World”: The cast from “A Different World” (photo courtesy: HBCU Buzz)

A Different World (1987-1993)

The Cosby Show is known for playing a prominent role in the Black history of television however, the show’s spinoff, “A Different World,” was known as a game changer. The show, “A Different World,” was about a group of students at a historically Black university and their day-to-day challenges with surviving college. In the series, viewers see the “Cosby Show” character Denise Huxtable and her peers discuss serious social issues, romance, and friendship amongst many other relatable topics.

The evolution of Black actors in the entertainment and television industry was quite the sight to see. In fact, the list of Black groundbreaking shows is endless. Actors of color went from playing stereotypical Black-face characters and portraying servants to reintroducing Black culture and history to the world. Although there is room for improvement and continued change in Hollywood, we must stop to applaud all of the Black men, women, and networks who played a role in the change that we see in modern television shows like “Martin,” “Everybody Hates Chris,” “Black-ish,” “Being Mary Jane,” “Empire,” “Insecure,” all of the Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey series and many more.

Categories: TV
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