These Are The Black Women Who Made Pop-Culture History

Photo: Matt Baron/REX/Shutterstock.
Black people are lit. It’s a fact that Black people already know and celebrate on a daily basis. Black History Month exists as a yearly reminder to everyone else that we’re lit. It’s the time of year where we have to remind each other that this great nation would not be what it is today if we were not in it. Black people have left their mark on just about every industry and other part of our culture, from politics and society to technology and entertainment.
Regarding the latter category, we’ve been laser-focused on the ways in which Black people, especially Black women, are not receiving recognition for their accomplishments at a rate they deserve. This awards season has proved to be particularly disappointing in terms of representation. We’ve had to write way too many pieces about women of color being snubbed.
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In the spirit of celebration, I think it’s only right to shift focus — if only for a moment — to focus on the positive. It’s time to pay some attention to achievements we’ve made instead of the ones that have been denied to us. So, without further ado, these are the Black women who made entertainment history, paving the way for the next generation to break records and set trends of their own.
It's Black History Month, but at Refinery29, we believe in celebrating Black voices, Black art, and Black women 365 days of the year. Follow us on Instagram at @r29unbothered for more on issues that affect Black women's everyday lives.
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Josephine Baker
In 1934, Josephine Baker — pioneer of the banana skirt — became the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture. She played the titular character in ZouZou.
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Hattie McDaniel
It’s hard to imagine a woman being cast as a mammy in 2018, but in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the opportunities were limited for women of color. And in 1940, Hattie McDaniels took her portrayal all the way to the Academy Awards, becoming the first Black woman to win an Oscar.
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Marian Anderson
Anderson became the first Black person to ever perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1955. She also notably refused to perform for segregated audiences.
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Ella Fitzgerald
Over the course of her career, Ella Fitzgerald won 14 Grammys. She was the first Black woman to ever take home the award at the inaugural ceremony in 1958.
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Diahann Carroll
At 82-years-old, you can still catch Carroll playing a sassy aunt or matriarch in television and film. It is the evolution of a career spanning over five decades. In 1968, she was the first Black woman with her own show. She played a widowed single mother on Julia for 86 episodes.
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Gail Fisher
Another prominent fixture of film and television in the '60s and '70s, Gail Fisher is the first Black woman to have ever won a Primetime Emmy (1970) and Golden Globe (1971).
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Sheila Johnson
Robert (Bob) L. Johnson is heralded as the founder of cable network BET. What may people don't know is that he actually co-founded it with his then-wife, Sheila. Since their divorce in 2002, she is worth an estimated $750 million. Another fun fact: she got remarried to the judge who presided over her divorce. Can you say break-up goals?
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Vanessa Williams
Good at just about everything including singing and acting, Vanessa Williams famously became the first Black Miss America in 1983.
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Photo: Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock.
Oprah Winfrey
A woman who needs no introduction, Oprah's first big milestone was becoming the first Black woman to host a syndicated daytime talk show. The Oprah Winfrey Show aired for 25 years and still remains the highest-rated daytime talk show in TV history. In 2003, Oprah also became the country's first Black female billionaire. Casual.
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Photo: Angela Pham/BFA/REX/Shutterstock.
Aretha Franklin
A musical icon, Aretha Franklin is the first woman to ever be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in addition to being crowned the Queen of Soul. Talk about putting respect on a name.
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MC Lyte
In 1988, MC Lyte became the first woman to drop a solo rap album with Lyte as a Rock. Bars.
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Melanie Brown
In 1994 in the United Kingdom five women — one of them, Melanie Brown, a Black woman — changed pop culture (and my life) forever. They were the Spice Girls, the best selling girl group of all time. Scary Spice forever.
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Lauryn Hill
In addition to being the only Black artist to win Best New Artist and Album of the Year in the same year (1999), the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was the first hip-hop project to win the Album of the Year Grammy.
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Halle Berry
Often considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, Halle Berry was also the first Black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar in 2002.
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Whoopi Goldberg
The same year Halle broke Oscar barriers, Whoopi Goldberg became the first Black woman to secure the EGOT.
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Photo: NBC-TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
Phylicia Rashad
It seems hard to fathom that 2004 was the first time a Black woman won the Best Actress in a Play Tony, but it's true. Rashad, known by millions as Claire Huxtable, was the talented recipient.
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Photo: Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock.
Mariah Carey
One of the best-selling female artists of all time and never caught dead in bad lighting, Mariah Carey is also the most successful Black woman in the history of Billboard's Hot 100 chart.
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Keke Palmer
In 2012, Keke Palmer became the first Black actress to play Cinderella on Broadway. And in 2014, she became the youngest host of a daytime talk show.
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Whitney Houston
The late singer is the most awarded female recording artist of all time. May she rest in peace.
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Beyoncé
With over 22 gramophones, Beyoncé is the most awarded Black woman in Grammy history. She's also the most-followed Black woman on Instagram.
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Rihanna
Bad Gal RiRi has the most songs to appear on Billboard's Pop charts. She is also the most followed Black woman on Twitter and the best-selling Black female artist of all time. That Rihanna reign just won't let up.
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Photo: Gregory Pace/REX/Shutterstock.
Nicki Minaj
Easily the most commercially famous lady rapper ever, Nicki Minaj surpassed Aretha Franklin's record as the female artist with the most Hot 100 songs on the Billboard Charts. She has 76.
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