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Black Excellence at the Emmys—From the '70s to the Present

‘Sisters’ celebrates Quinta Brunson’s big win and honors 10 other groundbreaking Black women who have made Emmy history.

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Quinta Brunson at the 75th Primetime Emmy Awards
Gilbert Flores/Getty Images
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Per usual, we were rooting for everybody Black, and we enjoyed all of the “for the culture” highlights. The cast of Martin reunited, and longtime friends Tisha Campbell and Tichina Arnold are still fly girls; fresh-faced newcomer Ayo Edebiri won Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for The Bear; and Niecy Nash won for Supporting Actress in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie for her harrowing turn in Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.

The biggest thrill of the evening, however, was watching Abbott Elementary star Quinta Brunson, pretty in pink crushed satin Dior, make history as the first Black woman to win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in over 40 years. That’s right! The last sister to snag an Emmy in the category was Isabel Sanford in 1981 for The Jeffersons.

Talk about movin’ on up! This was Brunson’s first ever acting Emmy; in 2022 she won for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series for the ABC sitcom about a struggling primary school set in her hometown of Philadelphia.

“Thank you so much. I love making Abbott Elementary and I am so happy to be able to live my dream, and act out comedy,” Brunson said through tears, after receiving the elegant gold statuette from television comedy legend Carol Burnett.

In honor of Brunson’s win, which feels like a win for us all, we’re taking a look back at the trailblazing achievements of ten other Black women who made Emmy history.

Gail Fisher

Fisher is an Emmy O.G. who made history in 1970 as the first Black actress to ever win an Emmy. For her role as widowed secretary Peggy Fair on the detective show Mannix, Fisher won in the new Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role in Drama category. According to The Hollywood Reporter, in the ‘60s the New Jersey native was also the first Black actor “to make a national TV commercial, on camera, with lines,” as she once explained, when she was cast in a laundry detergent campaign.

Cicely Tyson

Throughout her illustrious career, Tyson made us proud as she shattered stereotypes with her portrayals of proud and resilient matriarchs. The New York City native was nominated for 17 Emmy awards, and she won three. In 1974 she became the first Black woman to both be nominated and first to win in the category of Best Lead Actress in a Drama for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman; her second Emmy was for Actress of the Year, also for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman; and twenty years later in 1994 she won her third Emmy for her supporting role in the miniseries Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. In 2020 Tyson was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. A year later she joined the ancestors at age 96, but her legacy lives on.

Olivia Cole

Cole may not be a household name, but you may recognize her work. In 1969, she made her TV debut in the daytime soap opera Guiding Light, and she later appeared in over 30 television shows and films. In 1977, Cole became the first African American actress to win an Emmy award for Outstanding Single Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Comedy or Drama Series, for her performance as Chicken George’s wife Mathilda in the original Roots miniseries.

Isabel Sanford

Sanford was the first Black woman to win the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. The former Broadway baby clinched the Emmy in 1981 for her role as Louise “Weezy” Jefferson, the painstakingly patient wife to Sherman Hemsley’s hot-tempered George Jefferson, on the CBS sitcom The Jeffersons. As previously noted, Quinta Brunson is the second sister to win in this category. Previous funny lady nominees include Tracee Ellis Ross for black-ish and Issa Rae for Insecure.

Jackée Harry

The flirty Harry was the first Black woman to win Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series in 1988 for her role as our favorite neighborhood snoop Sandra Clark on the sitcom 227.

Viola Davis

Davis is an acting tour de force, and in 2015 she added another feather to her thespian cap as the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her portrayal of complicated law professor Annalise Keating in Shonda Rhimes’s How to Get Aways With Murder. "The only thing that separates women of color from everyone else is opportunity," Davis said in her acceptance speech. "You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there."

Queen Latifah

All hail to the multitalented Queen! As the executive producer of the HBO Bessie Smith biopic, Bessie, in which she also starred, Latifah took home an Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie in 2015. This win helped the hip-hop legend inch closer to EGOT status (she already has a Grammy, so all she needs is an Oscar and a Tony).

Lena Waithe

We first took notice of Waithe in 2015 when she co-wrote and co-starred in the "Thanksgiving" episode of the Netflix series, Master of None. The script was partially based on her personal experience revealing to her mother that she is queer. In 2017, the Chicago native became the first Black woman to win for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series and since then her star has continued to rise as a writer and producer. Of her groundbreaking Emmy win, Waithe said, “It says that it is possible. There’s so many other funny women of color. I hope they will now have an opportunity because this door has been opened.”

Sheryl Lee Ralph

In 2022, Ralph received a standing ovation as she took the stage in dramatic fashion to accept her Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series – making her the second African American woman to win in the coveted category. Of her monumental win for her standout role as strict kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard on Abbott Elementary, the veteran of stage (Dreamgirls), film (Sister Act 2) and television (Moesha) said, "Anyone who has ever, ever had a dream and thought your dream...couldn't come true. I am here to tell you that this is what believing looks like. This is what striving looks like. And don't you ever, ever give up on you."

Debbie Allen

Allen is a winner, baby. With 21 nominations, the dynamic actress, director, producer and dancer is currently the most nominated African American woman in Emmy history. The Houston native has a total of five Emmy wins, three for Outstanding Choreography, and has been bestowed two honors. In 2021, the Fame star became the first Black woman winner of the prestigious Governors Award and in 2022 she was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. “To be celebrated by the Television Academy is an overwhelming honor that humbles me and says to my community of dancing gypsies, actors, writers and musicians that if you stay passionate about your craft and do the work, you can go far,” Allen said about the Governors Award.

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