18 Black Actresses Who Broke Barriers & Won Major Awards (PHOTOS)

18 Black Actresses Who Broke Barriers & Won Major Awards (PHOTOS)

How to Get Away with Murder star Viola Davis's recent Best Actress Emmy win meant one of Hollywood's top women had to rearrange an award shelf already crowded with two Tonys and three Screen Actors' Guild statuettes, among others. But it also marked a breakthrough for all African-American actresses, since she's the first to win in the category!

Historically undervalued in Hollywood, black actresses have steadily chipped away at the barriers that have tried to keep them from exploring the breadth of their potential. Click through to see 20 black actresses who broke barriers and won major awards. 


Image via © Jenna Blake/Corbis

  • Halle Berry


    Image © Lucas Jackson/Reuters/Corbis

    Of 87 Best Actress Oscars awarded to date, only one has gone to a black woman: Halle Berry. A shocked Berry, who won for her role as the widow of a death row inmate who falls for her husband's executioner in 2001's Monster's Ball, cried onstage and said, "This moment is so much bigger than me...it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened."

  • Viola Davis


    Image © Jenna Blake/Corbis

    It's hard to think of any actress who deserves an award more than Viola Davis, whose power and presence carries every movie and TV show she's in. When she recently became the first African-American woman, ever, to win a Best Actress Emmy (for How to Get Away with Murder), she had a succinct message for Hollywood: "The only thing separating women of color from everyone else is opportunity. You cannot win awards for roles that are simply not there."

  • Uzo Aduba


    Image ©Eduardo Munoz/Reuters/Corbis

    Her no holds-barred approach to playing Crazy Eyes on Orange Is the New Black has earned Uzo Aduba not one, but two Emmys: one for Best Guest Actress in a Comedy Series and Best Supporting Actress in a Drama. She is the only actress of any race to win awards in both categories for the same role. 

  • Audra McDonald


    Image ©Walter McBride/Corbis

    She has won more Tonys than any other Broadway performer, regardless of race or gender, and it's no wonder. Onstage, Audra McDonald is a singing and acting force who even took on a role that would intimidate most: Billie Holiday, in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill.

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  • Cicely Tyson


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    She may be better known as Kunta Kinte's mom in Roots, but three years before she owned that role, Cicely Tyson became the first black actress to win a Primetime Emmy. She played a former slave who lives to see the birth of the civil rights movement in 1974's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. The role also earned her an Actress of the Year award, as part of the short-lived Super Emmy category.

  • Isabel Sanford


    Image ©Jim McHough

    Weezie was good. Isabel Sanford, who played the level-headed, long-suffering wife of cranky, self-made millionaire George on The Jeffersons, was the first African-American actress to nab an Emmy for Best Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. This was after she'd built a career on stage and film, memorably playing a plain-spoken housekeeper in the landmark film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

  • Hattie McDaniel


    Image © Bettmann/Corbis

    The first African-American Oscar winner is also the most controversial. Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. She had to convince her studio to submit her for a nomination and was forced to sit at a segregated table in the back of the room during the ceremony. At the time, the Ambassador Hotel did not allow blacks, and a special permission was necessary for McDaniels, the daugher of former slaves, to attend. Hollywood didn't do much better by her: She went on to play a maid 73 more times, responding to criticism by saying, "I'd rather play a maid than be a maid."

  • Whoopi Goldberg


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    A whopping 51 years passed between Hattie McDaniel's Best Supporting Actress win for Gone With the Wind and Whoopi Goldberg's 1991 win for Ghost. But Goldberg had already earned another major award on her mantle: A Best Actress Golden Globe for her heartwrenching portrayal of an abused former slave in 1986's The Color Purple.

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  • Jennifer Hudson


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    American Idol judge Simon Cowell famously dismissed her from the show by telling her she was "out of her depth." Hmm, Jennifer Hudson went on to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her bravura performance in Dreamgirls. In the process, she racked up a bevy of firsts: She was the first African-American actor of either gender to win for a debut role and the youngest ever to win, at 25. She was also the first black actress to win for a musical film.

  • Lupita Nyong'o


    Image © Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/Corbis

    She won no fewer than eight awards for her work on 12 Years a Slave, chief among them, Best Supporting Actress Oscar, which made her the first African of any gender to win an acting Oscar. "When I look down at this golden statue," she said in her acceptance speech, "may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you're from, your dreams are valid." 

  • Alfre Woodard


    Image ©Paul Buck/epa/Corbis

    Nominations: 17. Wins: 4. When it comes to African-Americans and Emmys, Alfre Woodard is the undisputed queen, with more nods and wins than anyone else of either sex. She's won across several categories and has scored a first: She was the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for Guest Actress in a Drama Series for L.A. Law

  • Jackée Harry


    Image ©Derek Storm/Splash News

    She was sassy and funny as the oversexed Sandra on 227 and she has an Emmy to prove it. Jackée Harry was the first African-American actress to win a Best Supporting Actress Emmy (in 1987) for the comedy series starring fellow greats Marla Gibbs and Regina King. 

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  • Angela Bassett


    Image ©Lucy Nihcolson/Reuters/Corbis

    She is one of Hollywood's most talented yet under-awarded actresses, and Angela Bassett's very short awards list proves it. Her most iconic performance, as Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It, did reap rewards, however. It earned her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Comedy or Musical, making her the first African-American actress to nab that prize.

  • Phylicia Rashad


    Image ©Splash News/Splash News/Corbis

    She's forever Claire Huxtable, right? Well, yes, but she's so much more. Phylicia Rashad is a theater maven who has received critical acclaim for her tour de force acting. In 2004, she won a Best Actress Tony for her work in A Raisin in the Sun, making her the first African-American female recipient. 

  • Gail Fisher


    Image ©Bettmann/Corbis

    The New Jersey–born actress said she was the first African-American of either sex to star in a TV commercial (for laundry soap, during her early years as a model). More significantly, she was the first black actress to win an Emmy. She won a Best Supporting Actress Emmy for her role as a secretary on the 1970 drama series Mannix.

  • Olivia Cole


    Image ©J.Sciulli/WireImage/Getty

    In the seminal Roots, Olivia Cole was unforgetable as the unbreakable Kizzy, daughter of Kunta Kinte. The Emmys agreed, making her one of only two actors on the miniseries to get an acting award (the other was Ed Asner). With the 1977 win, Cole became the first African-American woman to grab a Best Supporting Actress Emmy for work on a miniseries or movie. 

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  • Juanita Hall


    Image ©John Springer Collection/Corbis

    Here's a rarity: An African-American cast as another race. In Juanita Hall's case, the theater and film actress played Pacific Islander character Bloody Mary in South Pacific. The role made her the first black performer of either sex to win a Tony award. 

  • Beah Richards


    Image via YouTube

    The Mississippi-born daughter of a Baptist minister never lacked for work in film, most notably as Sidney Poitier's mom in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and on TV (she was Eriq LaSalle's mom on ER). She was the first African-American actress to win an Emmy for Guest Actress in a Comedy Series (in 1988, for Frank's Place) and also won the award for drama (The Practice, 2000).

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