Black History Month: African Americans in News & Entertainment

The Interviews: An Oral History of Television

Celebrate Black History Month with stories from LeVar Burton, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Diahann Carroll, Ed Bradley, Winifred Hervey, Quincy Jones, Gwen Ifill, Reuben Cannon, and Leslie Uggams


Since 1997, the Television Academy Foundation’s The Interviews: An Oral History of Television (formerly the Archive of American Television) has been conducting in-depth, videotaped oral history interviews with television professionals, including actors, writers, editors, and journalists. These interviews explore the lives and careers of the interviewees, and often touch on important historical moments and movements.

Gathered here are stories from interviewees about their achievements and challenges as African Americans in the news and entertainment industries, and in this country. Their stories are supplemented with images from LIFE's photo collection.

Actor LeVar Burton tells the story of how he was cast as “Geordi La Forge” on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He also shares what the original series meant to him when he was growing up, and how the series’ vision of a diverse future is the reason it resonates with so many fans, and with Burton himself:

“There’s a principle in 'Star Trek' called ‘IDIC’: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination. And in Gene [Roddenberry’s] vision there was an inherent respect for all of the diversity that exists as life throughout the cosmos. That’s a world I want to live in.“

Watch LeVar Burton’s full interview, which spans his career from being cast on Roots to Reading Rainbow, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and more.

Describing her relationship to the Civil Rights Movement, actress Ruby Dee explains that she was a part of it before it was even a movement:

"I can’t say that I joined it. I was born into it. … Our country could be one of the greatest countries that God ever imagined, were it not for this thing of racism and the feelings of superiority by some of its members."

Watch Ruby Dee’s full interview, which spans her career from her work on television and in film and theater, to her activism and collaboration with her husband, Ossie Davis.

Actor Ossie Davis describes seeing Marian Anderson sing at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 and what it meant to him:

"Her music could translate the negative aspects of being a black boy from the South…Marian Anderson was the first one who made me realize that, through art and music, she could reach inside me and just lift me from all that negativity and make me something else.”

Watch Ossie Davis’ full interview where he talks about his career from his early days in theater to his film and television work and collaborating with his wife, Ruby Dee.

Actress Diahann Carroll describes the impact of her series Julia, which challenged people’s stereotypes about African Americans, and African American women in particular:

"It was groundbreaking. You had to answer a lot of questions that people didn't dare ask prior to ‘Julia.’ They just had their prejudices. They held on to them. They worked out of them, but now all of a sudden, they were confronted with something else."

Watch Diahann Carroll’s full interview where she talks about her career from Julia to Dynasty, and more.

Anchor/Correspondent Ed Bradley tells the story of interviewing Lena Horne for 60 Minutes. He won an Emmy for the story, and says this, indicating how much the interview meant to him:

“If it was my first Emmy, it’s probably my most treasured Emmy. Not so much because it was the first, but because it was Lena."

Watch Ed Bradley's full interview, which spans his storied career at CBS News and 60 Minutes.

Writer/Producer Winifred Hervey shares the challenges she has faced as an African American woman in the entertainment industry, and how those in power can stop pigeon-holing people based on their race or gender:

"They should just look at the writing and say, 'This is a good writer and somebody who could bring something to this ...whatever they are.' I just think that people need to be a little more open-minded."

Watch Winifred Hervey’s full interview, which spans her career from writing for Benson and Mork & Mindy, to executive-producing The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and creating The Steve Harvey Show.

Composer/Producer Quincy Jones shares the story of his contribution to the groundbreaking miniseries Roots, and also explains the huge impact the show had on the nation:

"People were getting home from work earlier. They were deserting the bars. It really became like a contagious disease. I guess everybody really wanted to know about this part of America that isn’t talked about much. And 'Roots' explained it all. To all colors.”

Watch Quincy Jones’ full interview to hear the stories behind his legendary career.

Journalist Gwen Ifill shares the changes she made to PBS’s Washington Week when she came on as the moderator, and makes note of the many firsts she represented when taking on the job:

"I was the first woman to ever moderate the program. First African-American. Probably the youngest person to ever moderate the program."

Watch Gwen Ifill's full interview where she talks about her journey from The Baltimore Evening Sun to PBS NewsHour.

Casting Executive/Producer Reuben Cannon tells the story of casting Oprah Winfrey, who was not yet nationally known, in the film The Color Purple. He also shares how important the experience of casting the film was to him:

”It was one of my favorite experiences in casting. If that was the end of my career, I would have been satisfied."

Watch Reuben Cannon’s full interview where he tells the story of his career from starting out in the Universal mailroom to casting The A-Team, Moonlighting, House of Payne, and more.

Performer Leslie Uggams describes how Mitch Miller, creator and host of Sing Along with Mitch defended her when the network took issue with Uggams appearing with white performers. She also shares what her regular appearances on the show meant to the African American community:

”It was the first time nationally that you would see an African American woman on every week in a singing situation. … In the black community, whenever one of us is on, you know, ‘Oh my God, quick turn on the television!’ and so with me being on ‘Mitch’ every day, it gave my people a chance to see somebody that looked like them. Because back then there wasn’t even commercials that you could see us in.”

Watch Leslie Uggams’ full interview, which spans her career from performing at the Apollo Theater when she was nine to her role in the movie “Deadpool.”

Credits: Story

The Television Academy Foundation's The Interviews: An Oral History of Television

Jenni Matz, Director
Adrienne Faillace, Producer
Jenna Hymes, Manager & Exhibit curator
Nora Bates, Production Coordinator
John Dalton, Cataloguer
Video editing by the Pop Culture Passionistas, sisters Amy and Nancy Harrington, who have made a career based on their love of pop culture.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.