Reel Images | Woman’s History Month

Eartha Kitt
Eartha Kitt

As we celebrate Woman’s History Month, we salute the generations of Black actresses who paved the way for today’s strong group sisters. We celebrate our Top Black Actresses, some who are known, and unknown, from the inception of film through the 1970s.

Without further ado, here is our Top Black Actresses and their distinguished accomplishments.

Ethel Waters (October 31, 1896 – September 1, 1977)
A multi-talented blues, jazz and gospel vocalist and actress. She frequently performed jazz, big band, and pop music, on the Broadway stage and in concerts, although she began her career in the 1920s singing blues. Her best-known recordings include “Dinah,” “Stormy Weather,” “Taking a Chance on Love,” “Heat Wave,” “Supper Time,” “Am I Blue?” and “Cabin in the Sky,” as well as her version of the spiritual “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” She starred in the classic 1943 musical, Cabin in the Sky. Waters was the second African American, after Hattie McDaniel, to be nominated for an Academy Award. She is also the first African-American woman to be nominated for an Emmy Award, in 1962.

Fredericka Carolyn “Fredi” Washington (December 23, 1903 – June 28, 1994)
An accomplished African-American dramatic film actress, she was one of the first to gain recognition for her work in film and on stage. She was active during the period known as the Harlem Renaissance (1920s-1930s). She is best known for her role as “Peola” in the 1934 version of the film Imitation of Life, in which she plays a young mulatto woman. Her last film role was in One Mile from Heaven (1937), after which she left Hollywood and returned to New York to work in theatre and civil rights.

Josephine Baker (June 3, 1906 – April 12, 1975)
Before anyone knew what a superstar was, there was this landmark American-born French dancer, singer, and actress who came to be known in various circles as the “Black Pearl,” “Bronze Venus” and even the “Creole Goddess.” Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, Josephine later became a citizen of France in 1937. She was fluent in both English and French. Baker was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, Zouzou (1934) or to become a world-famous entertainer. Baker, who refused to perform for segregated audiences in America, is also noted for her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. She was once offered unofficial leadership in the movement in the United States by Coretta Scott King in 1968, following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Baker, however, turned down the offer. She was also known for assisting the French Resistance during World War II, and received the French military honor, the Croix de guerre and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.

Nina Mae McKinney (June 13, 1912 – May 3, 1967)
Worked internationally during the 1930s and in the postwar period in theatre, film and television, after getting her start on Broadway and in Hollywood. Dubbed “The Black Garbo” in Europe because of her striking beauty, McKinney starred in one of the first all-Black talking films, Hallelujah in 1929. McKinney was one of the first African-American film stars in the United States, as well as one of the first African Americans to appear on British television.

Francine Everett (April 13, 1915 – May 27, 1999)
An African-American actress and singer who is best known for her performances in race films, independently produced motion pictures with all-black casts that were created exclusively for distribution to cinemas that catered to African American audiences. Among Everett’s starring roles were the films Paradise in Harlem (1939), Keep Punching (1939) co-starring Canada Lee and Dooley Wilson, Big Timers (1945), which co-starred Moms Mabley and Stepin Fetchit, Tall, Tan and Terrific (1946) with Mantan Moreland and Dots Johnson, and Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. (1946), directed by Spencer Williams.

Lena Mary Calhoun Horne (June 30, 1917 – May 9, 2010)
The iconic singer, dancer, actress, and civil rights activist, Horne joined the chorus of the Cotton Club at the age of sixteen and became a nightclub performer. She moved to Hollywood, where she had small parts in numerous movies, and more substantial parts in the films Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. Because of the Red Scare and her left-leaning political views, Horne found herself blacklisted and unable to get work in Hollywood. Her career spanned over 70 years appearing in film, television and on broadway. Returning to her roots as a nightclub performer, Horne took part in the March on Washington in August 1963, and continued to work as a performer, both in nightclubs and on television, while releasing well-received record albums. She announced her retirement in March 1980, but the next year starred in a one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, which ran for more than three hundred performances on Broadway and earned her numerous awards and accolades. She continued recording and performing sporadically into the 1990s, disappearing from the public eye in 2000.

Hilda Simms (April 15, 1918 – February 6, 1994)
was an African-American stage actress, best known for her starring role on Broadway in Anna Lucasta, a play her mother Lydia refused to attend because she would not watch her daughter play a prostitute; she didn’t raise her that way. Originally written for an all-white cast, the show made a huge splash when the American Negro Theater produced it. The production moved to Broadway in 1944 where it became an early drama featuring African American actors in work that explored themes un-related to race. When the play toured abroad, Hilda continued playing in Anna Lucasta while enjoying a singing career in Paris nightclubs under the name Julie Riccardo.

Ruby Dee (October 27, 1922 – June 11, 2014)
This dynamo was a noted actress, poet, playwright, screenwriter, journalist and activist and is best known for co-starring in the films A Raisin in the Sun (1961), Do the Right Thing (1989), and American Gangster (2007) for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She was the recipient of Grammy, Emmy, Obie, Drama Desk, Screen Actors Guild Award, and Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Awards as well as the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honors. She was married to actor Ossie Davis until his death in 2005.

Dorothy Jean Dandridge (November 9, 1922 – September 8, 1965)
This beautiful film and theatre actress, singer and dancer is perhaps best known for being the first black actress to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the 1954 film, Carmen Jones. Dandridge performed as a vocalist in venues such as the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater. During her early career, she performed as a part of The Wonder Children, later The Dandridge Sisters and appeared in a succession of films, usually in uncredited roles. In 1959, she was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Porgy and Bess. She is the subject of the 1999 HBO biographical film, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. She has been recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Dandridge was married and divorced twice, first to dancer Harold Nicholas (the father of her daughter, Harolyn Suzanne) and then to hotel owner Jack Denison. Dandridge died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 42.

Cicely L. Tyson (December 18, 1924)
A very respected actress, Tyson was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, and the Golden Globe Award for her performance as Rebecca Morgan in Sounder (1972). For this role she also won the NSFC Best Actress and NBR Best Actress Awards. She starred in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974), for which she won two Emmy Awards and was nominated for a BAFTA Award. During her career she has been nominated for eleven Primetime Emmy Awards, winning three. In 2011, she appeared in the film The Help, for which she received awards for her ensemble work as Constantine from the BFCA and SAG Awards and she has an additional four SAG Award nominations. She starred on Broadway in The Trip to Bountiful as Carrie Watts, for which she won the Tony Award, Outer Critics Award, and Drama Desk Award for Best Actress in a Play. She previously received a Drama Desk Award in 1962 for her Off-Broadway performance in Moon on a Rainbow Shaw.

Sheila Guyse (July 14, 1925 – December 28, 2013)
Also known as Drucille Guyse, she was a popular African-American singer, actress, and recording artist, performing on stage and screen during the 1940s and 1950s, in the Dorothy Dandridge film era. She was often compared to Dandridge and it has been said that some critics thought Guyse was a better actress than the more well-known Dandridge. It may be argued that if Sheila had been allowed the opportunity to make an impact in the Hollywood cinema, she would have been stiff competition for the more established actress. Guyse had a sultry “girl-next-door” appeal which she showcased in three independent all-Black films (so-called “race films”) of the late 1940s: Boy! What a Girl! (1947), Sepia Cinderella (1947, co-starring with Billy Daniels), and Miracle In Harlem (1948) giving impressive performances in all of them. She also appeared in the Harlem Follies of 1949 and in a 1957 television adaptation of the play The Green Pastures.

Eartha Mae Kitt (January 17, 1927 – December 25, 2008)
This alluring actress, singer, cabaret star, dancer, stand-up comedienne, activist and voice artist, known for her highly distinctive singing style and her 1953 recordings of “C’est Si Bon” and the enduring Christmas novelty smash “Santa Baby”, which were both US Top 10 hits. Orson Welles once called her the “most exciting woman in the world”. Kitt began her career in 1943 with the Katherine Dunham Company and appeared in the 1945 original Broadway production of the musical Carib Song. In the early 1950s, she had six US Top 30 hits, including “Uska Dara” and “I Want to be Evil”. Her other notable recordings include the UK Top 10 hit “Under the Bridges of Paris” (1954), “Just an Old Fashioned Girl” (1956) and “Where Is My Man” (1983). She took over the role of Catwoman in 1967 for the third and final season of the Batman television series, replacing Julie Newmar. In 1968, her career in America suffered after she made anti-war statements at a White House luncheon. Ten years later, she made a successful return to Broadway in the 1978 original production of the musical Timbuktu!, for which she received the first of her two Tony Award nominations. Her second was for the 2000 original production of the musical The Wild Party. She voiced Yzma in both the 2000 animated film The Emperor’s New Groove and the 2006–08 TV series The Emperor’s New School, winning two Emmy Awards, the second shortly before her death. Kitt won a third Emmy posthumously in 2010 for The Wonder Pets.

Abbey Lincoln (August 6, 1930 – August 14, 2010)
Born Anna Marie Wooldridge, Lincoln was an American jazz vocalist, songwriter, and actress, who wrote and performed her own compositions. She was a civil rights advocate during the 1960s. In 1956 Lincoln appeared in The Girl Can’t Help It, for which she wore a dress that had been worn by Marilyn Monroe in Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953), and interpreted the theme song, working with Benny Carter. With Ivan Dixon, she co-starred in Nothing But a Man (1964), an independent film written and directed by Michael Roemer. In 1968 she also co-starred with Sidney Poitier and Beau Bridges in For Love of Ivy, and received a 1969 Golden Globe nomination for her appearance in the film. In the 1990 Spike Lee movie Mo’ Better Blues, she played young Bleek Gilliams’ mother.

Nichelle Nichols (December 28, 1932)
Born Grace Dell Nichols, she is an actress, singer and voice artist. She sang with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton before turning to acting. Her most famous role is that of communications officer Lieutenant Uhura aboard the USS Enterprise in the popular Star Trek television series (1966–1969), as well as the succeeding motion pictures, where her character was eventually promoted in Starfleet to the rank of commander. Multiple novel series have stated that she rose to at least Captain. Her Star Trek character, one of the first African American female characters on American television not portrayed as a servant, was groundbreaking in U.S society at the time. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. personally praised her work on the show and asked her to remain when she was considering leaving the series

Marpessa Dawn (January 3, 1934 – August 25, 2008)
Also known as Gypsy Marpessa Dawn Menor, she was an American-born French actress, singer, and dancer, best remembered for her role in the film Black Orpheus (1959). At the age of 24, Dawn won the role of “Eurydice” in his film Black Orpheus. The film won the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival and the 1960 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Considered a great beauty, Dawn was featured in November 1959 by Ebony and has been hailed as “one of Ebony magazine’s prettiest cover girls, along with the likes of Dorothy Dandridge, Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams and Lena Horne.” She and her fellow lead from Black Orpheus, Brazilian actor Breno Mello, died just 42 days apart in 2008, both from heart attacks.

Barbara McNair (March 4, 1934 – February 4, 2007)
Noted singer and actress, born Barbara Jean McNair in Chicago, Illinois and raised in Racine, Wisconsin, McNair studied music at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Her big break came with a win on Arthur Godfrey’s TV show Talent Scouts, which led to bookings at The Purple Onion and the Cocoanut Grove. McNair’s acting career began on television, guesting on series such as Dr. Kildare, The Eleventh Hour, I Spy, Mission: Impossible, Hogan’s Heroes and McMillan and Wife. McNair posed nude for Playboy in the October 1968 issue. She caught the attention of the movie-going public with her much-publicized nude sequences in the gritty crime drama If He Hollers Let Him Go (1968) opposite Raymond St. Jacques, then donned a nun’s habit alongside Mary Tyler Moore for Change of Habit (1969), Elvis Presley’s last feature film. She portrayed Sidney Poitier’s wife in They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) and its sequel, The Organization (1971), and George Jefferson’s deranged ex-girlfriend Yvonne in The Jeffersons (1984). McNair starred in her own 1969 television variety series The Barbara McNair Show, one of the first black women to host her own musical variety show. The show, which was produced in Canada by CTV (at CFTO/Toronto) lasted three seasons in first-run syndication in the United States until 1972.

Diana Sands (August 22, 1934 – September 21, 1973)
This cinematic force of nature was an actress, perhaps most famous for her portrayal of Beneatha Younger, the sister of Sidney Poitier’s character in the original stage and film versions of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1961). A member of the Actors Studio, Sands’ performed in the Studio’s 1964 production of James Baldwin’s Blues for Mr. Charlie. She also co-starred with Alan Alda in the original Broadway production of The Owl and the Pussycat (1964) for which she was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. In 1970, Diana Sands co-starred in the Norman Jewison produced film, The Landlord, directed by Hal Ashby. In his memoirs, Bob Dylan tells of meeting Ms. Sands at a party and states that she was, “an electrifying actress who I might have been secretly in love with…” She was set to star in the film Claudine (1974) with James Earl Jones, however, she was too ill to accept the role and it went to her friend Diahann Carroll. She was twice nominated for a Tony Award, and twice nominated for an Emmy Award as well. She died of leiomyosarcoma at aged 39.

Diahann Carroll (July 17, 1935)
A gorgeous veteran television and stage actress and singer, Carroll has enjoyed a long, successful career that has spanned nearly six decades. After appearing in some of the earliest major studio films to feature black casts such as Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1959) and on Broadway, she starred in Julia (1968), one of the first series on American television to star a black woman in a non-stereotypical role. Later she played the role of Dominique Deveraux on the popular prime time soap opera, Dynasty. She is the recipient of numerous stage and screen awards and nominations. Carroll has been married four times and became the mother of a daughter in 1960. She is a breast cancer survivor and activist. Carroll was scheduled to return to the Broadway stage in the 2014 revival of A Raisin in the Sun as Mama, but withdrew prior to opening citing the demands of the rehearsal and performance schedule.

Judy Lenteen Pace (June 15, 1942)
This lovely actress is best known for her roles in various films and television shows during the 1960s through the late-1980s. She portrayed Vickie Fletcher on the TV series Peyton Place (1968-1969) and Pat Walters on the ABC drama series The Young Lawyers (1969-1971), in which she won an Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series in 1970. She made her film debut as one of the title characters in William Castle’s 13 Frightened Girls (1963). Pace got her first major break in Hollywood as the first black villainess on TV with her role as “Vickie Fletcher” in the hit ABC-TV soap-opera/drama series Peyton Place (1968). She became a familiar face in the 1970s on both the big and small screen, appearing in popular blaxploitation movies and popular television shows. Television shows on which she appeared include Batman, Bewitched, The Flying Nun, I Spy, The Mod Squad, That’s My Mama, Kung Fu, Sanford and Son, Good Times and What’s Happening!. For one season, she starred in the drama The Young Lawyers
on ABC. Pace also had a key supporting role as Gale Sayers’s wife in the critically acclaimed 1971 ABC-TV movie Brian’s Song.

Leslie Uggams (May 25, 1943)
Star of stage and screen, Uggams is a talented actress and singer, known for her work in Hallelujah, Baby! and as Kizzy Reynolds in the 1977 television miniseries Roots. She appeared in her own television variety show, The Leslie Uggams Show in 1969. This was the “first network variety show to feature an African-American host since the mid-1950s Nat “King” Cole Show.” She had a lead role in the 1977 miniseries Roots, for which she received an Emmy nomination, as Kizzy. In 1979, she starred as Lillian Rogers Parks in Backstairs at the White House, a miniseries for which she was nominated for an Emmy Award for Best Actress. She also made guest appearances on such television programs as Hollywood Squares, Fantasy, The Muppet Show, and Magnum, P.I.. In 1996, Uggams played the role of Rose Keefer on All My Children. Uggams starred in the 1975 film Poor Pretty Eddie, in which she played a popular singer who, upon being stranded in the deep South, is abused and humiliated by the perverse denizens of a backwoods town.

Vonetta Lawrence McGee (January 14, 1945 – July 9, 2010)
This beautiful actress is best known for her roles during the 1970s, which included several noted blaxploitation films. McGee became well known for her parts in the 1972 Blaxploitation films Melinda and Hammer. In the action thriller Shaft in Africa (1973), McGee took the role of Aleme, the daughter of an emir, who teaches John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) Ethiopian geography. In 1974, McGee appeared as Thomasine, alongside Max Julien as Bushrod, in the western action film, Thomasine & Bushrod, which was intended as a counterpart to the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. The next year, she starred alongside Clint Eastwood in the action thriller The Eiger Sanction (1975). She appeared in an episode of the TV series Starsky & Hutch named “Black and Blue” in 1979. She was a regular on the 1987 Universal Television situation comedy Bustin’ Loose, starring as Mimi Shaw for its first and only season (1987-1988).

Tamara Janice Dobson (May 14, 1947 – October 2, 2006)
A statuesque actress and fashion model, Dobson appeared in a few films in Hollywood, and became best known for her title roles in the 1973 Blaxploitation film, Cleopatra Jones and its 1975 sequel Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold. After school, Dobson moved from Maryland to New York to model and act full-time. Dobson, who stood 6 feet 2 inches, eventually became a fashion model for Vogue Magazine. Reportedly there was animosity between Dobson and Pam Grier with Dobson’s publicist writing that “Miss Dobson refuses to appear in the same book much less on the same page as Miss Grier” and “Miss Dobson also has refused to participate in the same celebrity events in which Miss Grier is involved”. Dobson’s animosty was believed to be due to her refusing to do nude scenes in films as opposed to Pam Grier. It was later discovered that the two were very friendly and close friends.

Pamela Suzette “Pam” Grier (May 26, 1949)
A beautiful, yet physical presence as an actress, Grier became famous in the early 1970s after starring in a string of moderately successful women in prison and blaxploitation films like The Big Bird Cage (1972), Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974) and Sheba Baby (1975). Her career was revitalized in 1997 after her appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s film, Jackie Brown, for which she received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress. She has also been nominated for a SAG Award as well as a Satellite Award for her performance in Jackie Brown. Grier is also known for her work on television, for 6 seasons she portrayed Kate ‘Kit’ Porter on the television series The L Word. She received an Emmy Award nomination for her work in the animated program Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child. Rotten Tomatoes has ranked her as the second greatest female action heroine in film history. Director Quentin Tarantino remarked that she may have been cinema’s first female action star.

Jayne Kennedy (née Harrison; born October 27, 1951)
T an American actress, beauty pageant titleholder, and sportscaster. She won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture award for 1981’s Body and Soul. Jayne and her then-husband Leon Isaac Kennedy moved to California to pursue careers in acting. In 1978, she was one of the first women to infiltrate the male-dominated world of sports announcing with a role on The NFL Today. She has been on the cover of Ebony and Jet magazines numerous times.

Lonette McKee (July 22, 1954)
Another multi-talented film, television and theater actress, music composer, producer, songwriter, screenwriter and director. McKee is most known for her role as Sister Williams in the original 1976 musical-drama film, Sparkle. She is also known for roles in such movies as The Cotton Club, ATL and Honey. McKee has also co-starred in four Spike Lee films, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, He Got Game and She Hate Me, which introduced her to a new generation of fans. Recently, McKee also appeared on the CW sitcom The Game as Mrs. Pitts, the mother of Jason (played by Coby Bell).