Who knew? The first African American to appear on television was famed Olympian Jesse Owens, who was featured on an experimental NBC broadcast in 1936.
This little-know fact and many others were shared Wednesday night at the Paley Center for Media’s tribute to African-American achievements in television. The gathering at Cipriani Wall Street was emotional and educational for many in attendance.
Oprah Winfrey was host for the evening which included special tributes to Cicely Tyson and BET Networks, which is marking its 35th anniversary this year. The presentation offered a look at black achievements in a range of sectors, from news and sports to variety shows, drama and comedy.
Tyson, it was noted, was the first black actress to wear her hair naturally on a primetime series when she was a regular on CBS’ “Eastside, Westside” in the early 1960s.
“We’re not there yet,” Tyson told the crowd regarding equality on screen, “but we’re going to get there.”(Earlier in the evening, Tyson indicated she wasn’t too happy about the idea of “Roots,” the landmark 1977 miniseries in which she starred, being remade for History. “‘Roots’ is a classic, and it should remain a classic,” she said.)
Winfrey urged the crowd to remember that the black community has many stories to tell. She contrasted the contemporary TV landscape and the multicultural boom in primetime TV with the world she knew growing up in Mississippi.
“There are many ways to be black, and ish,” she said, a nod to ABC’s hit comedy “Black-ish.” The stars of that show, Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross, had the crowd laughing as they bantered while introducing the segment on comedy achievement.
A tricky question for the event was how the issue of Bill Cosby’s legacy would be handled, following months of rape accusations leveled at the comedian. Cosby was referenced for his groundbreaking role in the 1960s drama “I Spy,” and for NBC’s “The Cosby Show,” although the clip from the latter focused on his co-star Phylicia Rashad. Rashad was on hand and read a letter sent for the occasion by President Obama. The Prez saluted the TV biz for its power to “open eyes and change minds.”
Other presenters included Kerry Washington, Lee Daniels, Wynton Marsalis, Gabrielle Union, Gwen Ifill, Larry Wilmore, Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Shemar Moore.
The event coincided with the Paley Center’s initiative to expand its archive of African-American materials.