– Melina Major, staff
Following decades of oppression and segregation, Ernest Morrison became the first African-American to receive a long-term Hollywood contract in 1919, essentially becoming the first African-American to truly break into show biz. In the 93 years since, black actors, singers, and personalities have gone on to help shape the modern entertainment landscape today. In honour of Black History Month, here is a list of the ten greatest achievements of all time.
- Oprah Winfrey was the first black woman to have her own talk show. She embodies the ultimate story of rags to riches. She grew up in a poor rural town in Mississippi where she faced many hardships in her life, including years of abuse from family members as well as family friends. Now because of her talk show, she’s a billionaire who fights for the rights of young African girls, giving them a chance for an educated life by using her own money to create a school just for them. On top of all this, she gives away free cars to people, so that’s definitely pretty cool too.
- Contrary to popular belief, Michael Jackson was not the first black person to have a music video on MTV. Artists such as Prince with his song “1999” appeared on the charts before Jackson ever did. However, he was the first black person to have a song continuously on the charts. In 1983, Jackson’s infamous song “Billie Jean” hit the airwaves and within weeks it was in the top 10. By 1989 the song was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.
- Halle Berry was the first black woman to win an Academy Award for Best Actress. This was for her role as Leticia Musgrove in the 2001 film, Monster’s Ball. The movie- about a racist prison guard who falls in love with the widow of a black man that he murdered- was considered to be Berry’s best performance. In her Oscar speech she brought many people to tears as she told her peers that her award was “for every nameless, faceless woman of colour that now has a chance because this door tonight has opened”.
- In 1997, Tyra Banks appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Edition. This issue marked the first time they had ever featured a black woman on the cover. She also broke ground by being the first African American chosen to be a Victoria’s Secret Angel. Since then, Tyra Banks has had her own talk show, acted in television and film, and created her extremely successful reality show American’s Next Top Model (which resulted in several other versions in Germany, Australia, Britain and Canada).
- Lena Horne was a black actress and singer in the 1940s. She was the first African American to sign a long-term contract with major movie studio, MGM. She held her ground by refusing to play any role that had her portrayed as a servant (which at the time was one of the only roles offered for black people). She even went as far as requesting that this refusal be put into her contract. She was headstrong about civil rights in her personal life too. In 1947 she married her first husband- a white, Jewish composer named Lennie Hayton. At the time it was illegal for inter-racial couples to wed, so they had to have a secret ceremony in Paris.
- Bill Cosby was the first black man to star in a network television show called “I Spy”. Although the show only lasted from 1965 to 1968, Cosby was highly influential with his largest accomplishment, “The Cosby Show”. This was a successful sitcom for eight seasons, airing from 1984 to 1992. The show was about a black family whose father (played by Cosby) was a loving dad and doctor, with a large collection of ridiculous sweaters. This show is considered groundbreaking since it revolves around a mostly non-white cast, which was still a relatively new concept for television.
- Disney had never created an African American princess until 2009. This year marked the opening of Princess and the Frog, an animated cartoon based on the beloved children’s story of the same name, voiced by actress Anika Noni Rose. Before then, most of Disney’s princesses were typically Caucasian- with the exception of Mulan, Jasmine and Pocahontas.
- Vanessa Williams was the first African American to win the title of Miss America. She was crowned in 1987, running as Miss New York. However, when controversial photos of her surfaced she was forced to step down. She was then replaced by her runner up, Suzette Charles. Although Williams was made to step down, she opened doors for black women in the pageant and contest industry.
- One of the first black novelists was Harriet Wilson, author of “Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black”. Wilson’s novel was written in 1859 when black people were treated as slaves, although it was published anonymously. Although the book did not sell well due to controversy, it was republished again in 1982 and received national attention.
- Nat King Cole was the first ever black man to host a variety show. This show was called “The Nat King Cole Show” and was created in 1956. The show included various musical guests as well as interviews with celebrities. But due to racial controversy, funding for the show was cut short, causing most of Cole’s guests to be industry friends of his that volunteered to help the show. Cole was also an influential singer and pianist, winning Best Performance By A Top 40 Artist at the 1960 Grammy Awards for his song “Midnight Flyer”.