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R.I.P. pioneering actress Diahann Carroll

Photo: Mark Davis (Getty Images)

Diahann Carroll, the Tony-winning actress who was the first Black woman to star in her own series in a non-servant role, has died. Per ABC News, the Oscar-nominated icon’s daughter, Suzanne Kay, confirmed the news of her death to the Associated Press. Carroll died in her home in Los Angeles, where she was living with cancer. She was 84.

Born in the Bronx and raised in Harlem, Carroll began modelling in Ebony Magazine at the age of 15, while she was still enrolled in Music And Arts High School. She got her major break at 18 when she appeared on ABC’s talent show Chance Of A Lifetime by singing a rendition of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Why Was I Born?”, which won her $1000 and began a five-win streak. She would go on to perform in New York’s historic Manhattan’s Café Society (just like fellow greats Pearl Bailey, Nat King Cole, and Miles Davis) and Latin Quarter nightclubs.


Carroll’s film debut was in 1954's Carmen Jones, starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. From there, she continued to confirm her status as a multi-hyphenate, landing roles in both film (Porgy and Bess, Paris Blues) and Broadway ( 1954's House Of Flowers). In 1962, Carroll won the Tony Award for her turn as Barbara Woodruff in No Strings, becoming the first Black woman to win the award for Best Actress. After adding a few more movies to her ever-growing list of credits, she starred as the titular character opposite James Earl Jones in the 1974 film Claudine, which earned her an Oscar nomination.

Though she made an ineradicable mark in film and on the stage, it was Carroll’s work in television that made her a household name. Establishing herself as a leading personality with infallible range, she aimed to break out of a very limiting cycle that only allowed Black actors to play a small subset of roles—ones that typically portrayed them as servants and minute side characters. In 1968, NBC approached her to star in a comedy series titled Julia, where she would play a widowed nurse and earn Emmy and Golden Globe nods. Here, she would make history once again as the first Black woman to star in her own primetime series as a non-stereotypical character.

16 years later, Carroll took on the monumental role of Dominique Deveraux in Dynasty after lobbying for a spot on the show. She voiced her desire to join the series rather bluntly for People in 1984: “I want to be wealthy and ruthless. I want to be the first black bitch on television.” Not only did she get her wish, she also became the first prominent Black character in a primetime soap. The role also allowed her to reunite with her old high school classmate, Billy Dee Williams.

For years Carroll maintained a legacy through reoccurring TV roles, like her Emmy-nominated guest starring, highly quotable part as Whitley Gilbert’s mother, Marion, on A Different World and Jane Burke on Grey’s Anatomy. Carroll was also charitable: She founded the Celebrity Action Council, a group of celebrity women who volunteered to work with women who were in rehabilitation for various addictions.


Carroll was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997. Wanting to help others, she traveled the country in order to spread awareness and encourage others to seek medical help for early detection: “In the war against breast cancer, we have the ability to arm ourselves with knowledge and education is a powerful tool. By taking action and doing something positive, fear is replaced with hope.”

In her decades-long career, Diahann Carroll became the face of perseverance and limitless possibilities. Her refusal to succumb to the barriers that kept fellow Black actors from working in the entertainment industry opened multiple doors for Black talent, and her distinctive presence has left a imprint that cannot be erased or overshadowed. May we find within ourselves the courage to create our own paths by following Carroll’s advice: “If you’re not invited to the party, throw your own.”


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