A science fiction icon. A bespectacled, suspender-wearing nerd. A reality-TV legend. A history-making addition to the Arrowverse.
For nearly as long as the medium has existed, television has introduced us to iconic Black characters that forever changed the pop culture game. In celebration of Black History Month, it feels only right to recognize how TV — and its viewers — have been profoundly impacted by the 30 fictional alter egos listed below (sorted alphabetically by show title).
Not every character in our celebration was the first to accomplish a particular milestone, though many of them did leave glass ceilings shattered and boundaries pushed. The Jeffersons‘ Helen Willis, for example, served as half of TV’s first interracial couple, while Scandal‘s Olivia Pope was the first Black female protagonist of a primetime network drama in nearly 40 years.
But even without a superlative next to their names, all 30 of these characters had a major influence, whether they paved the way for similar archetypes in future TV series, or made Black viewers feel seen and heard by their representation on screen.
Scroll through our list of these 30 distinguished characters below, from The Wire‘s Omar Little to Rugrats‘ Susie Carmichael, then drop a comment with the small-screen icons you’d like to honor.
President Palmer, 24
Portrayed By: Dennis Haysbert
His Impact: Haysbert’s POTUS was not pop culture’s first Black Commander in Chief, but he was arguably its most impactful. From his introduction in the Fox drama’s 2001 pilot through to his exit five seasons later, David Palmer normalized the concept of a Black president for 10 million-plus weekly viewers — and possibly changed the course of real-life political history in the process. Three years later, America would elect its first Black president in the similarly elegant and principled Barack Obama. As Haysbert himself acknowledged to TV Guide back in 2008: “[Palmer] did open [the public’s] minds and their hearts a little to the notion… that a Black man could be President of the United States.” — Michael Ausiello
George Jefferson, All in the Family/The Jeffersons
Portrayed By: Sherman Hemsley
His Impact: Only one man could lock horns with the formidable Archie Bunker and actually come out on top: George Jefferson, who was every bit as hardheaded and loudmouthed as his next-door nemesis. Brought to vivacious life by Hemsley, George was such a breakout character on All in the Family that he landed his own spinoff, The Jeffersons, with George and his wife Weezy movin’ on up to a dee-luxe apartment in the sky. (It just ran for 11 seasons, no big deal.) A decade before The Cosby Show, George was a wealthy, successful Black man living his best life in the big city… which, back then, was a downright revolutionary concept. — Dave Nemetz
Portrayed By: Eartha Kitt
Her Impact: With swiveled hips and that distinctive, raspy voice, Kitt sauntered her way into the zeitgeist as one of the most iconic renditions of the character. Kitt’s Catwoman exuded playful mischief, wielding her sexuality like a finely tuned weapon while plotting against the caped crusaders. As the actress’ daughter Kitt McDonald Shapiro told Closer following her death, “She was one of the first really beautiful Black women — her, Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge — who were allowed to be sexy without being stereotyped.” — Keisha Hatchett
Bernie Mac, The Bernie Mac Show
Portrayed By: Bernie Mac
His Impact: Listen up, America: This guy was no Cliff Huxtable… and that’s a good thing. Mac parlayed his stand-up success into a self-titled Fox sitcom that was just about the polar opposite of The Cosby Show, offering a rowdy, realistic counterpoint to Cosby’s squeaky-clean family dynamics. Bernie had to take care of his sister’s three kids while she went to drug rehab, and while his parenting style was strictly tough love — he often threatened to whup some sense into them — he also had a soft side underneath that grumpy exterior. Bernie may not have won any Father of the Year awards, but as he showed for five seasons, even a flawed parent can raise kids right. — D.N.
Clair Huxtable, The Cosby Show
Portrayed By: Phylicia Rashad
Her Impact: Bill Cosby’s sordid #MeToo rap sheet may have tarnished The Cosby Show‘s legacy, but it in no way blunted the impact of the NBC comedy’s towering matriarch. Rashad’s Clair — an eloquent, quick-witted, career-driven disciplinarian with zero tolerance for BS — elevated the “sitcom wife” trope to new heights. And she did it in front of 40 million weekly viewers. — M.A.
Dominique Deveraux, Dynasty
Portrayed By: Diahann Carroll
Her Impact: Primetime’s first Black actress to headline a series about a character who was not a servant — Julia’s Julia was a nurse; more on her in a bit — Carroll would go on to make history again. In 1984, she achieved her goal of playing TV’s first Black bitch when she was cast as Blake Carrington’s surprise half-sister in Season 4 of the hit sudser. For the next three years, the glamtastic chanteuse traded barbs with catty Alexis and paved the way for hellions like Empire’s Cookie Lyon and The Haves and the Have Nots’ Veronica Harrington. — Charlie Mason
Jane Foster, East Side/West Side
Portrayed By: Cicely Tyson
Her Impact: With Tyson’s casting on the CBS series, she became the first Black actress to co-star in an American broadcast drama. And though East Side/West Side only lasted one season at the Eye Network in the early 1960s, Tyson’s role as secretary Jane Foster paved the way for many other boundary-breaking protagonists on this list — especially when the series so often shined a light on race relations and the Black experience (an often-uncomfortable light that may have led to the show’s demise). Though Jane wasn’t given the meaty storyline material that lead character Neil Brock was, she still left her mark as an assertive, independent woman who blazed an important trail on the small screen. — Rebecca Iannucci
Cookie Lyon, Empire
Portrayed By: Taraji P. Henson
Her Impact: Fox’s hip-hop drama would not have been the breakout success it was were it not for Henson’s wholly original anti-heroine, who exploded on the scene in 2015 like an M-80 on steroids. As comfortable calling the shots on the streets as she was in the boardroom, Cookie was a study in spectacular contrasts. As Empire scribe Attica Locke noted to NPR in the wake of the series’ launch, “Her type of humor, her type of wisdom, is being showcased in a way that I don’t think we’ve seen in a Black character on TV.” — M.A.
Rue Bennett, Euphoria
Portrayed By: Zendaya
Her Impact: The HBO original tackles issues of abuse, addiction, grief and teenage experiences through the lens of the imperfect main character Rue. She may not be the best role model, but her experiences are real and paint a different account of addiction through a biracial and queer female character. Although Rue was inspired by series creator Sam Levinson, who is white, and his personal battle with addiction, Rue’s experience is genuine to Black people confronting this same issue. As Vox’s Nylah Burton pointed out, “Euphoria has taken a huge step in [the] direction by portraying a Black girl character who, despite her illness, remains someone we root for.” — Erianne Lewis
Frank Pembleton, Homicide: Life on the Street
Portrayed By: Andre Braugher
His Impact: Cop shows are one of TV’s sturdiest genres, but Black cops rarely headed up an ensemble before Frank Pembleton picked up a badge. Played with exceptional fire and clarity by Braugher — the role won him his first Emmy — Pembleton was a relentless investigator known for his ability to squeeze confessions out of suspects in the interrogation room. Homicide was decidedly an ensemble piece, but Pembleton was the breakout star, launching Braugher’s illustrious TV career and setting a very high bar for Black TV cops to follow. — D.N.
Steve Urkel, Family Matters
Portrayed By: Jaleel White
His Impact: The Winslow family may have found their geeky next door neighbor to be a nuisance, but Steve Urkel was so popular with viewers of the ABC/CBS sitcom that he went from being a supporting recurring character in Season 1 to series regular in the second season. From there, his influence only grew, with a look and a catchphrase (“Did I do that?”) so iconic that it’s still referenced in pop culture to this day. And when he wasn’t professing his love for Laura Winslow or causing accidents, Urkel was paving the way for portrayals of intelligent Black nerds who proudly march to the beat of their own drum. — Vlada Gelman
Iris West, The Flash
Portrayed By: Candice Patton
Her Impact: It was no small thing when Patton (almost exactly nine years ago) landed the role of Iris West, who in the comic books had been white with red hair. “I went into it having the expectation that, obviously, people were going to be upset” with the casting, Patton told TV Guide in 2020. “I remember our executive producer at the time saying [to] maybe sit offline for a couple of days, which I did.” But nearly as fast as Barry Allen runs, Patton made her indelible mark on Iris, whose Black identity has shown through more and more in recent years. (In Season 6, Patton got to wear her natural curls, and in the coming season, Iris is shown sleeping in a bonnet for the very first time.) “Once I was on Twitter, watching the show with everyone, and seeing young girls see themselves in Iris… it was really an overwhelming feeling,” the Arrowverse’s first Black female lead told TV Guide. “I’m saying these lines and trying to do the best I can, and it’s just icing on the cake that I’ve been able to be a part of something so iconic and inspiring.” — Matt Webb Mitovich
New York, Flavor of Love
Portrayed By: Tiffany Pollard
Her Impact: Pollard aka New York vied for Flavor Flav’s love on the VH1 series, and reality TV was never the same. Confident, authentic, and hilarious, Pollard gave us a treasure trove of memorable sound bites: Who could forget the moment Hottie compared herself to Beyoncé, only for Pollard to hit back that she looked like Luther Vandross? Her larger-than-life personality was the gift that kept on giving, so much so that she was brought back for Flavor of Love Season 2 and even landed her own spinoff, I Love New York (which birthed the offshoot Real Chance of Love). Pollard went on to deliver more unforgettable TV moments on shows like Celebrity Big Brother and New York Goes to Work, but it was Flavor of Love that made her a household name. — K.H.
Uncle Phil, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Portrayed By: James Avery
His Impact: The NBC sitcom would not have had the same cultural impact without Avery’s Uncle Phil guiding the titular character through six successful seasons. A stern but caring father, he represented something different on TV: He was a privileged Black man who never forgot his humble roots, someone who could quote Malcolm X and call out social injustice while imparting invaluable life lessons that still resonate today. More than that, Phil was an exemplary dad who always showed up for his family, regardless of the circumstance. — K.H.
Issa Dee, Insecure
Portrayed By: Issa Rae
Her Impact: Keeping it real even when things got real messy, the protagonist of Rae’s 2016-21 HBO dramedy wasn’t television’s first aspirational Black heroine, nor (thankfully) has she been the last. But Malibu: Few and far between are others who have made us wince as much over their missteps, cheer as loudly for their triumphs and root as hard for their evolutions from insecure to confident. So not a wine-down goes by that we don’t raise a glass to the inventor of the party Lyft. — C.M.
Helen Willis, The Jeffersons
Portrayed By: Roxie Roker
Her Impact: As Helen Willis, wife of Franklin Cover’s Tom, Roker broke ground as half of TV’s first interracial couple. The Willises lived upstairs from the CBS hitcom’s eponymous George and Louise, and their daughter Jenny eventually wed the Jeffersons’ son Lionel. Series creator Norman Lear (per his memoir Even This I Get to Experience) told Roker up front that Helen’s husband “would be seriously white and their marriage would be as real as any other on TV.” He also made sure the actress knew what she was getting into — though perhaps for naught! “I cautioned her that television had never seen a mixed couple in a real relationship, never seen them kiss on the lips and sleep in the same bed, and there was no way we could foretell the audience reaction,” Lear recalled in his memoir. Roker famously responded by retrieving from her purse a photo of her with her white, Jewish husband, Sy Kravitz. “‘We’ve been married for nearly 15 years,'” Lear quoted Roker as saying. “‘Does this answer your question?'” — M.W.M.
Julia Baker, Julia
Portrayed By: Diahann Carroll
Her Impact: This NBC comedy (which premiered in September 1968 and ran three seasons) has been heralded as the first U.S. TV series to chronicle the life of a Black professional woman, and Carroll went on to become the first Black woman to earn an Emmy nomination in her category (though The Ghost & Mrs. Muir‘s Hope Lange wound up claiming the prize). Yet along with such plaudits, some criticized the series as “television fantasy” with its depiction of a glam, widowed single mom. Speaking to that incongruity, Carroll told TV Guide in December 1968, “The needs of the white writer go to the superhuman being. At the moment, we’re presenting the white Negro. And he has very little Negro-ness.” Carroll decades later told PBS’ The HistoryMakers that while some Black viewers were “angry” with Julia for not “telling it like it is,” the premise of a child being raised by an unwed nurse “was very close to the way I was brought up.” Though the stress that came with breaking such ground eventually landed her in the hospital, Carroll said that Julia “really did make a difference” in that “the studio had to pay attention to the fact that this made money, this attracted sponsors. And when the community, for the most part, is very pleased with what you’re doing and it involved a Black woman as a star…. It was a memorable moment.” — M.W.M.
Maxine Shaw, Living Single
Portrayed By: Erika Alexander
Her Impact: Not only did lawyer Maxine (aka The Maverick) exude confidence and strength both inside and outside of the courtroom, but she was a singular Black woman who always advocated for herself and never wasted her time on BS, inspiring generations of women with her power and success. And given how Alexander’s performance brimmed with energy and eccentricity, it’s no surprise that she won two NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. — Nick Caruso
Florida Evans, Maude/Good Times
Portrayed By: Esther Rolle
Her Impact: After two seasons as the outspoken, self-confident housekeeper on Norman Lear’s Maude, Florida would be spun off as the matriarch of TV’s first series to feature an intact Black nuclear family. Though the popularity of Jimmie Walker’s “dyn-o-mite!” J.J. would make him the de facto star of the show, it was Rolle’s turn as the tough-as-nails homemaker that kept the series grounded, even after TV husband John Amos was killed off in Season 4. Rolle bailed on Season 5 due to creative differences, but would return for the sixth (and ultimately final) season, cementing her status as one of the all-time great TV moms. — Ryan Schwartz
Moesha Mitchell, Moesha
Portrayed By: Brandy Norwood
Her Impact: If a young white girl in the ‘90s wanted to watch a TV show centered around someone who looked like her, the options were endless. This wasn’t quite the case for young Black girls, whose choices were considerably more limited. Enter Moesha, a teen sitcom that attracted and inspired an audience desperate to see themselves reflected on television. In particular, the title character’s style — from her effortlessly fly wardrobe to her enviable box braids — resonated with fans. “The show’s vision was of a cool young Black girl who was brave and creative in her life, and that [carried] over in her style,” co-creator Sara Finney-Johnson told Vice’s Garage in 2019. As Norwood later recalled in an interview with Essence, “So many women tell me, ‘I never saw myself on television before Moesha.’ It made brown-skinned people feel like they could do anything.” — Andy Swift
Carla Gray, One Life to Live
Portrayed By: Ellen Holly
Her Impact: Days of Our Lives’ Abe Carver, All My Children’s Angie Hubbard, The Young and the Restless’ Drucilla Barber… they all owe a debt to Carla, who following the much-missed ABC soap’s 1968 debut became daytime’s first non-white character to carry a years-long frontburner storyline. Mind you, no one knew at first that Carla was Black. She passed herself off as Italian-American and sparked racist outrage by dating a Black doctor. Years later, she and true love Ed Hall tied the knot in daytime’s first on-screen wedding of two Black characters. — C.M.
Sophia Burset, Orange Is the New Black
Portrayed By: Laverne Cox
Her Impact: Sophia was, and remains, among the most dynamic transgender characters TV has ever seen. Viewers witnessed the inmate go to hell and back, as she railed against a reduction in her hormone dosage and endured a stint in solitary confinement. But she came out of Litchfield even stronger and went on to open her own salon. In a 2020 interview with TV Insider, Cox — who was the first transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy in any acting category — stated just how important it was for audiences to see a Black trans woman achieve her dream. “The trans people in real life need to see it. Non-trans people in real life need to see that,” she said. “If we can see it on screen, then we can begin to imagine it. That’s what Sophia’s evolution and her ending… means for me.” — R.S.
Pray Tell, Pose
Portrayed By: Billy Porter
His Impact: Black. Gay. HIV-positive. Belonging to any of these communities in the 1980s would present individual challenges, so of course Pose decided to blend all three qualities into one fabulous package — and thank God it did. A boisterous, vibrant ballroom caller, Pray Tell touched the hearts of those around him, as well as those watching from home, simply by existing as his authentic self. “The stories that get green-lit with Black men are generally stories about us killing each other very often,” Porter told People in 2019. “So it’s nice, it’s beautiful and it’s time. It’s time to see a different story. It’s time for the world to understand that there are all types of people on the planet, and we do different things, and we can honor each other’s humanity inside of that.” That this role earned Porter his first Emmy in 2019 is merely the icing on the cake. — A.S.
Susie Carmichael, Rugrats
Portrayed By: Cree Summer
Her Impact: With the introduction of Susie (and her family) in the Season 2 episode “Meet the Carmichaels,” Rugrats brought in a memorable, multi-faceted character who went on to become a crucial part of the series, at a time when young Black girls often went unrepresented in animation. The show found ways to celebrate and embrace Susie’s Blackness — from the braids and barrettes she rocked, to the 2001 Kwanzaa special that explored her family’s culture more deeply — while also never defining her by it. Instead, Susie was a kind, loyal friend who wasn’t afraid to give spoiled brat Angelica a piece of her mind, and a tremendously cool toddler who allowed Black children to see themselves reflected in one of the most popular kids’ series of the time. — R.I.
Olivia Pope, Scandal
Portrayed By: Kerry Washington
Her Impact: The first Black woman to anchor a TV show in more than four decades, Olivia was a character the likes of which we had never before seen in pop culture. Viewers were able to “imagine what it would be like to see a Black woman as the most powerful [person] in America — and we needed it,” observed Candice Benbow in Essence in the wake of the ABC thriller’s 2020 series finale, adding that Olivia’s flaws were just as groundbreaking as her attributes. “Black women deserved to see themselves as complex and messy. Because we are.” — M.A.
Benson DuBois, Soap/Benson
Portrayed By: Robert Guillaume
His Impact: Following his scene-stealing, two-season run as the Tates’ acerbic butler on ABC’s Soap (for which he won his first Emmy), Guillaume was deemed spinoff-worthy and headlined a sitcom where his Benson DuBois served as the head of the household for (daft) Gov. Eugene X. Gatling (played by James Noble). What made Benson stand out as a character is what ultimately sold Guillaume on the potentially stereotypical role. As he very candidly noted in a Television Academy interview, a character such as a wise-cracking servant was “the very thing I don’t want to play, the very thing I got into the business to eradicate if I could.” But once he saw the scripts and found a way for Benson to passive-aggressively snark at Chester Tate et al., to “make people laugh without being a buffoon and without being stupid or servile,” “it took the onus off the character and I began to feel more comfortable…. It was written against type, and I was able to embody that.” — M.W.M.
Nyota Uhura, Star Trek
Portrayed By: Nichelle Nichols
Her Impact: Before Gene Roddenberry’s visionary NBC series debuted in 1966, science fiction was a blindingly white genre in film and television. But Nichols’ trailblazing turn as the Enterprise’s communications officer let Black viewers know that there was a place for them in the stars. Her mere presence onboard inspired a generation of Black kids; when Nichols considered leaving the show, no less than Martin Luther King Jr. (!) urged her to stay. Uhura was the first in a long line of Black sci-fi icons, including Next Generation‘s Whoopi Goldberg, who remembers seeing Uhura on Star Trek as a kid and telling her family, “There’s a Black lady on television, and she ain’t no maid!” — D.N.
Randall Pearson, This Is Us
Portrayed By: Sterling K. Brown
His Impact: As a Black man raised by an adoptive white family, Randall was continually caught between two worlds. Rather than shy away from that painful (and ongoing) reality, the show examined it closely: how Randall’s part in the Pearson family dynamic was simultaneously loving and fraught, and how the most painful othering can be perpetrated by those who love us most deeply. Over the series’ run, Randall ultimately found strength in his identity as a Black man, lending him a self-assurance that maybe even helped him reach the highest office in the land. — Kimberly Roots
Michonne Hawthorne, The Walking Dead
Portrayed By: Danai Gurira
Her Impact: Adapted from Robert Kirkman’s popular comic-book series for the long-running AMC drama, the post-apocalyptic badass was, from the moment she appeared on screen with her katana and jawless zombie “pets,” iconic. And lest you doubt her legendary status for a second, may we remind you that the future MCU star’s character not only transcended her graphic-novel trajectory to become endgame for hero Rick Grimes, she’s being brought back for the 2024 limited series that will wrap the characters’ love story. — C.M.
Omar Little, The Wire
Portrayed By: Michael K. Williams
His Impact: Seeing a Black man mired in the world of drugs and guns on TV is not exactly a novel sight… but there was nothing ordinary about Omar Little. As exquisitely portrayed by Williams — how he didn’t even get an Emmy nomination, we’ll never know — Omar was a crafty stick-up man who played both sides of the fence in a vicious gang war, roaming the streets of Baltimore like a lone wolf. He was also a gay man who loved his grandmother and lived by a strict moral code. The rich complexity infused into Omar by Williams and series creator David Simon was virtually unparalleled by any TV character, Black or otherwise, and he reminded us that inside every tough street gangster beats a tender heart. — D.N.