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On Sunday, Viola Davis became the first-ever African-American actress to win the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.

Davis, who stars on ABC's How to Get Away with Murder, addressed inequality in Hollywood in her powerful acceptance speech: "The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”


In the nearly 70-year history of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, only seven black women have ever been nominated in this category. Here's to the talented, underrecognized performers who helped take Viola "over that line."

Debbie Allen

Fame (1982, 1983, 1984, 1985)



Besides starring as dance instructor Lydia Grant, Debbie Allen also choreographed Fame, NBC's adaptation of the 1980 Oscar-winning movie about a performing arts high school.

Emmy nods run in Allen's family: sister Phylicia Rashad, best known as The Cosby Show's Clair Huxtable, is one of only four black actresses ever to be nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.

Alfre Woodard

St. Elsewhere (1986)



Alfre Woodard spent three seasons on the NBC medical drama as Roxanne Turner, an OB-GYN who falls in love with Denzel Washington's character before leaving to practice medicine in her Mississippi hometown. Woodard lost to Sharon Gless, Cagney of Cagney & Lacey.

Regina Taylor

I'll Fly Away (1992, 1993)



This little-watched, much-acclaimed period piece starred Regina Taylor as Lilly Harper, a blossoming Civil Rights activist and a housekeeper for a white Southern lawyer (Sam Waterston).

"In terms of fully exploring a female character, I believe I have the best television role for a woman, black or white," Taylor told Essence in 1992.

Taylor ultimately won a Golden Globe for this role in 1993, referencing Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer in her acceptance speech.


Cicely Tyson

Sweet Justice (1995)



Cecily Tyson co-starred as Carrie Grace Battle, the head of a law firm in a small Southern town.

"Attorneys abound on TV, but few females on a series have actually headed a law firm," Tyson said in a 1995 interview. "I believe I'm the first black woman to do so on a weekly drama."

To date, Tyson has racked up three Emmy wins and 12 nominations—including one this year, at the age of 90, for her guest role on How to Get Away with Murder as Viola Davis's character's mother.


Kerry Washington

Scandal (2013, 2014)



Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope is a brilliant D.C. fixer with an enviable wardrobe and a batshit personal life. Scandal creator Shonda Rimes is also an executive producer of How to Get Away With Murder.

Washington discussed the importance of her role with the New York Times: "I wanted Scandal to be a success because I wanted networks and studios to believe that people of color and that women can be the driving force—both separately and when you happen to have both."

Taraji P. Henson

Empire (2015)



Taraji P. Henson crackles as Cookie Lyon, the fresh-out-of-prison matriarch of Empire's hip-hop dynasty.

Viola Davis may have taken home the Emmy last night, but Henson nevertheless helped make TV history: 2015 marks the first time two black actresses have been nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in the same year.


And while they weren't nominated for the same award as Davis, there are two more historical heroines worth mentioning here. In 1963, Diahann Carroll became the first-ever black Emmy nominee for her guest role on Naked City in 1963; she was also the first black woman nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 1969, for the title role in Julia. Only four black actresses have ever been nominated in that category—among them, only Isabel Sanford has won, for playing Weezy on The Jeffersons in 1981.

Here's Davis's stirring speech, in case you missed it:

Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.