When Diahann Carroll played the title role in the sitcom Julia in 1968-1971 on NBC, it was a very big deal in America. She was the first black woman to star in her own network program not playing a maid. She was the first black star of a scripted show since the controversial Amos and Andy a decade and a half earlier.
With the number of television outlets now, it may be difficult to imagine how rare it was any for any blacks on TV who weren’t maids or other marginalized roles. The trick with the show Julia is that a black person was expected, by various factions, be all things African American, an impossible task. Julia was a middle-class, attractive, professional woman (nurse) and didn’t speak like folks from the “ghetto.”
She was a single mom, which irritated a number of people who felt an emasculation of the black family. (Conversely, read What Diahann Carroll meant to black single moms like me.) Julia was a war widow raising her pretty perfect, cute “little man” (Marc Copage as Corey).
The show actively eschewed social issues at a time in America when there was war, racial divide, and assassinations. When “Julia” talked to her potential employer and told him on the phone about her race, he quipped, “Have you always been a Negro, or are you just trying to be fashionable?”
Carroll was acutely aware of this tension. In a 1968 interview, she said, “With black people right now, we are all terribly bigger than life and more wonderful than life and smarter and better—because we are still proving. For a hundred years we have been prevented from seeing ourselves and we’re all overconcerned and overreacting. The needs of the white writer go to the superhuman being.” In other words, what would be later dubbed The Magic Negro.
Still, our household watched it. Every black person I knew watched it, because “WE” were on the screen in a positive light. “Julia” was beautiful, talented, and poised when “WE” had hardly been represented at all. It was just as most African Americans watched the short-lived Nat King Cole Show a decade earlier, my parents told me.
Julia was ranked seventh by Nielsen among the most popular show in its first season. In its second season, it was ranked twenty-eighth. It may have been canceled not because of her race but because it was a tad bland and the creative team wanted new horizons. Still, it was a major step for television.
Before and after
Diahann Carroll had already been making major strides. She was featured in some of the earliest major studio films to feature black casts, such as Carmen Jones in 1954, and Porgy and Bess in 1959. She was the first African-American woman to win a Tony for lead actress in a Broadway production, for the Richard Rogers musical No Strings.
Later, Diahann Carroll starred as Dominique Deveraux – great name, that – in the nighttime soap operas Dynasty and its crossover, The Colbys. I’ll admit I did NOT watch. But I did see her as recurring characters on A Different World (1989-1993), and Grey’s Anatomy (2006-2007).
Diahann Carroll, born Carol Diann Johnson in NYC on July 17, 1935, was a trailblazer in the entertainment industry. When Tyler Perry opened his new movie studio in Atlanta, he named one of the sections after the illustrious actress, even before she died October 4, 2019.