This Day In History: September 17th
Representation in television and media has been a constant struggle for the African-American community but over the years there have been efforts to offset the issue. On September 17th of 1968 and 1970, two shows played their role in helping to combat the lack of diversity on television screens. Those two shows were Julia and The Flip Wilson Show.
The first to premiere was Julia. The series aired on Sept. 17, 1968, on NBC and lasted for three seasons. Actress Diahann Carroll was the show’s leading lady and starred as Julia Baker. Carroll’s character was a widowed woman raising her 5-year-old son after losing his father in Vietnam. The character of Julia Baker was unique for television in the sense that she was considered middle-class, lived in a nice apartment and worked as a nurse.
Although this depiction was beneficial in advancing the image of African-Americans, many viewers had a problem with the premise from the beginning. Julia was criticized but the good outweighed the bad and the series became a hit. Carroll even won the Golden Globe Award for best actress in a comedy for season one. It was also the first series with an African-American lead character since the early 1950s.
Just two years after the premiere of Julia, comedian Flip Wilson debuted his variety show with NBC on Sept. 17, 1970. The Flip Wilson Show was a first-of-its-kind variety show that featured an African-American talent as the lead since Nat King Cole. Wilson earned his own series after impressing NBC executives with his appearances on the Johnny Carson Show and a pilot special.
The Flip Wilson Show also stood out because it relied on Wilson and his guest to keep the show entertaining rather than including singers and dancers. Like Julia, the series became a success and won two Emmy awards in 1971 (Best Variety Show and Best Writing In A Variety Show). The show proved to be one of the last successful variety shows of the period and ran for four seasons, ending in June of 1974.
Diahann Carroll and Flip Wilson were a part of a limited group of black television pioneers. Despite adversity, both shows were able to reach millions of American households and paved the way for future series to come.