An Historical Myth: Julia as a Groundbreaking Television Show

The television show “Julia” was my very first favorite show. I was almost five years old when the program first aired on tv and when I headed to first grade….well, of course I carried my “Julia” lunchbox with great pride. I had no idea that some 35 plus years later I would be asked to write a paper on some aspect of history and media. I was so excited to write about the first show that influenced me in my life. I wanted to be a nurse, just like Julia, and I hoped to write a paper that would honor the “historic” show. Sadly, my research found that what I thought was groundbreaking was not and what I thought would be a paper to honor the show I loved as a child turned into a piece that almost seems critical. I want to make it clear here….I am NOT criticising the show or its place in television history. What I am trying to do is to place “Julia” in its proper historical place and honor those whose names are rarely credited correctly in the American television history books. I still find “Julia” to be a walk down memory lane, but I now see it with new eyes. I am now able to see how I was given specific impressions of life for African Americans during my childhood that were skewed by television from the reality that was the Civil Rights struggle. I hope you enjoy this post and I truly believe that if you understand my thesis, you will see television programming and representation of African Americans in media (all media, but specifically television) with new eyes of your own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the end of WWII television made its way into American living rooms. By 1948, a handful of shows were being broadcast into roughly two percent of American homes. This number quickly grew. By the late fifties, more than seventy percent of homes had a television. Originally, programmers “drew on the image of the white, middle-class family audience when devising programming…strategies.” But by the middle to late 1960s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the federal government began to pressure the networks to create programming that better represented the African American community. Although African Americans began to appear on television in growing numbers, the way they were portrayed and the stories built around them continued to receive criticism and debate. Commentators then, and now, point to one show in particular, Julia (1968-1971), for its groundbreaking portrayal of African Americans in this new medium.

Careful examination of its themes, however, proves that it was not as groundbreaking as it was believed to be. Julia has been celebrated over the past four decades of television history as a groundbreaking show for supposedly being the first situation comedy to star an African American woman in the lead role. It is also hailed as the first show to realistically portray African Americans in a family setting. Many in the African American community hoped that Julia would be the beginning of a change in how African Americans were represented on television. Although it came about in a period when there were very few African Americans on television, in reality, Julia was not groundbreaking for any of these or, for that matter, any other reasons.

Almost all scholars agree that the representation of African Americans on television, regardless of the decade examined, does not accurately depict the common African American experience within society. Historian Robert Sklar points out that “[t]elevision programs certainly don’t ‘reflect’ American society in any precise sense, but to be popular they do need to express, in their various conventional stylized ways, some of the real feelings and concerns of their audience.” Yet in the thirties, the possibilities that television could serve as a positive tool for change seemed endless. It could not only entertain, it could also educate. One scholar, Sociologist Orrin E. Dunlap, Jr., predicted in 1932 that television would become “a new weapon against hatred and fear.” Although Dunlap may have been speaking about hatred and fear against several different ethnic groups, it is quite possible that African Americans stood to benefit the most from his prediction. Later, in the 1950s, television and the Civil Rights Movement began to impact American society simultaneously. According to historian J. Fred MacDonald, “[t]he Civil Rights Movement was the first political groundswell to recognize the importance of TV and enlist the medium in a social crusade.” But regardless of the many possibilities that television held, African Americans were disappointed. They found the medium to be just as hostile and degrading as the entertainment mediums that preceded it.

Brief Early History of African Americans on Television

Many of the early television shows crossed over from radio. The most noted early ones starring African Americans were The Beulah Show (1950-1953) and Amos ’n Andy (1951-1953). Both remained popular on the radio when television also began broadcasting episodes of the two shows in the early fifties. On the radio, both programs originated with white men playing the lead characters, but on television the roles were played by African Americans. In October of 1950, Beulah debuted on the American Broadcasting Channel (ABC) and starred Ethel Waters, a well known actress. Beulah, not Julia, was the first television situation comedy series viewed by a national network audience to star an African American.

There had been, however, one African American woman who preceded Ethel Waters on television by three months. Hazel Scott was a “jazz and classical pianist and singer” who had studied music at Julliard. Scott had a variety show, The Hazel Scott Show, which aired from July of 1950 through September of that same year. The short lived program aired on the DuMont Network, a small network that broadcast to only a handful of major cities on the east coast. Scott’s show was cancelled after she was accused of being a communist sympathizer, based on her outspokenness against McCarthyism. Although Scott was technically the first African American woman to have her own show, the first African American, male or female, to star in a nationally televised series was Ethel Waters.

Soon after ABC aired episodes of Beulah, the NAACP criticized it for perpetuating the comic black stereotypes. These were the same stereotypes that the NAACP had been fighting against in the film industry for years. The half-hour situation comedy centered on the whimsical clowning around activities of a stereotypical ‘mammy’ character and the white family she worked for. Beulah had a boyfriend, Bill, who ran a fix-it shop, although Bill usually hung around Beulah’s kitchen instead. She also had a friend, Oriole, portrayed as a “feather-brained maid,” who worked for a neighboring white family. All of these characters represented negative stereotypes of African Americans. Just two months into the show’s first year, Bud Harris, the actor who played the character Bill, left the show, citing unhappiness with the writers whom he felt “were forcing him to play an ‘Uncle Tom’ and engage in comic activity he found degrading to his race.” Ethel Waters left the show in 1951 to do other projects. Hattie McDaniel replaced her, but only filmed six episodes before leaving Beulah for health reasons. Producers hired Louise Beavers to replace McDaniel, but the show, achieving nowhere near the success it had on the radio, left the air in 1953.

The slight controversy and debate that Beulah brought about was nothing in comparison to Amos ’n Andy, which moved from CBS radio to CBS television in 1951. Amos ’n Andy has the distinction of being the first network television series to have a cast that consisted of all African American actors–it would be almost twenty more years before this would occur in prime-time again. Regardless, the NAACP, at its annual convention held in June of 1951, condemned both Beulah and Amos ’n Andy for their portrayal of African Americans. They argued that these two shows were “depicting black people in a derogatory manner” and that they “strengthen[ed] the conclusion among uninformed or prejudiced peoples that Negroes and other minorities are inferior, lazy, dumb and dishonest.” The NAACP called for a boycott of Amos ’n Andy’s advertisers because the show portrayed “every character [as] either a clown or a crook,” characterized “Negro doctors…as quacks,” and “Negro lawyers…as crooks.” The constant pressure by the NAACP caused CBS, after seventy-eight highly rated episodes, to cancel the show in 1953. Amos ’n Andy would, however, be picked up and syndicated until 1966 when it finally left the air.

The controversies around these two early shows had far-reaching impact that the NAACP may not have anticipated. By 1953, the Civil Rights Movement was heating up throughout the nation. Advertisers began to consider how not to alienate the white Southern market. As African Americans became more vocal about racial discrimination, advertisers began backing away from sponsoring any television show that had characters played by African Americans. Advertisers and television producers equally feared negative economic repercussions if white Americans perceived that their products and shows were too closely associated with the African American struggle. Referring to African Americans on television, one advertiser in 1968 told Variety that, “the word has gone out, no Negro performers allowed.” Other than a couple of unsuccessful exceptions, African Americans did not begin to gain any significant roles on television until the latter part of the 1960s. Even then, the roles they received were limited, unflattering, stereotypical, and demeaning. African Americans continued to be cast as characters that did not represent them in a realistic or positive manner for decades. Julia would be no different.

Julia

In the decade leading up to the premiere of what would be heralded as a groundbreaking show, Americans watched news coverage as sit-ins, protests, and riots occurred across the nation. Americans saw black students try to integrate public accommodations throughout the South, but such peaceful attempts were met with violent responses by Southern whites. In 1963, Americans listened as Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of 200,000 people, both black and white, who had participated in the March on Washington. And Americans watched as police wearing riot gear beat unarmed students in the streets for demonstrating peacefully for civil rights. They also witnessed Medgar Evers (1963), John F. Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), and Robert F. Kennedy (1968) gunned down by assassins’ bullets. This was the 1960s unfolding on American television sets; this was the reality that African Americans were facing. It was amidst this turbulent social environment that the National Broadcasting Network (NBC) decided to debut a new show centered on an African American family.

Simply titled Julia, the new show proved to be anything but simple. Hal Kanter, a television executive producer and writer, had attended an NAACP conference in the summer of 1967 and was moved to write a show that would further the cause of changing Americans’ perceptions of African Americans. Ironically, Kanter would later tell the Los Angeles Times that “Julia was originally written as a white woman and when NBC suggested Diahann Carroll it gave the series a different aspect, a new look – but essentially she could have been played white.” The pilot episode of Julia was shot and handed over to the NBC audience research department in January of 1968. The pilot was rejected as a new series. Executives thought it was “too saccharine,” and they wanted a strong competitor to run against CBS’s highly popular The Red Skelton Show (1951-1971). With nothing in the existing line-up believed to be strong enough to compete against the CBS show, NBC made the decision to reconsider Julia. The decision came, not from the shows ability to portray African Americans in a realistic or positive light, but from political pressure placed on the television industry.

Network executives felt increasing pressure, both from the African American community and from the federal government’s advocacy of civil rights, to improve the representation of African Americans on television. The pressure related not only to the stories and characters, but to the number of African Americans employed, both before and behind the camera. Additionally, the government was pressuring for an increase in the hiring of African Americans in network executive level positions. In July of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin. Then in September of 1965, Johnson took the matter further by issuing an executive order which enforced affirmative action for the first time, ensuring equality in hiring practices. The actions by Johnson compelled the networks to respond. Beginning in 1965, the number of programs with African American characters began to increase. Amidst such a background, NBC executives were looking for a series to run against Skelton. At the same time, they determined that any show they aired opposite Skelton would not survive. But if such a program was going to fail, executives wanted a show that “would fail nobly.” Paul Klein, the director of audience research, suggested that NBC select a “show that would have value beyond the ratings.”

Julia, starring Diahann Carroll, is a half-hour situation comedy, focused on the story of Julia Baker, an African American woman who was raising her son alone in Los Angeles after her husband had been killed in the Vietnam War. Julia moves to Los Angeles to start a new life, rents an apartment in an integrated building, and takes a job in the aerospace industry as a nurse. All of the initial supporting characters–neighbors, co-workers, patients, store clerks, friends, etc.–were mostly white characters who seemingly did not notice nor care that Julia was black at a time when, in reality, this would have been an issue.

Klein believed Julia “had racial importance at a time when television was under heavy criticism as a lily-white medium.” He argued that Julia might aid NBC in its attempt to meet governmental pressure concerning African Americans on television. The show was sold as the first to star an African American actress in a lead role. With so many pluses for the network, NBC decided to run Julia opposite Skelton. To everyone’s surprise, Julia was a ratings hit right from the start. The new show debuted on September 17, 1968 and was second in the ratings only to Laugh-In (1968-1973), another NBC hit series. Julia stayed in the top six shows on television for the entire first season.

Right from the first beat of the stereotypical version of an African drum in the show’s musical theme, the network signaled viewers that Julia was in some way about black life. Added to the drumming is an upbeat rhythm which plays while images of the physical racial differences between African Americans and whites are emphasized. The opening shots of Diahann Carroll are fast moving images of her nose, mouth, ears, and eyes, all done in a manner to accentuate the fact that this new lead character is African American. This breakdown of individual facial features is not done with any of the other characters shown within the show’s introduction.

In the early episodes of the first season, the period when the program was being hit hardest by criticism, the stories did not deal with any realistic aspect of African American life. In fact, Julia actually reinforced the racism the network insisted it was fighting. The viewer’s introduction to Julia Baker comes in the pilot and first episode titled, “Mama’s Man” and “The Interview,” respectively. Both episodes were written by the show’s creator Hal Kanter and demonstrate the way the show diverted attention from the issue of race to the issue of gender. During her first job interview in the pilot episode, Julia is told that all of her qualifications are in order, but that she was not what the interviewer had expected. Julia asks him if she should have been something else, shorter, taller perhaps, or, “[s]hould [she] have written at the top of the application in big, bold, black letters, ‘I’m a Negro?’” The interviewer informs her that the issue of her being a Negro was not the problem, but that she was “too pretty.” He continues by telling her that “when we employ nurses far less attractive than you, we find that we lose many man-hours. Malingerers, would-be Romeos, that sort of thing. In your case, you might provoke a complete work stoppage.”

This type of blatant sexism also appears in “The Interview” episode. Dr. Chegley, Julia’s soon-to-be new boss, is looking at an X-ray when she returns for her second interview. Without even looking at her, he asks her to identify it. After Julia tells him he is looking at a chest X-ray, Dr. Chegley turns to her and they have the following exchange:

Chegley: You have a healthy looking chest…I believe you’re here to beg me for a job.
Julia: I’m here at your invitation, Doctor, to be interviewed for a position as a nurse. I don’t beg for
anything.
Chegley: I’ll keep that in mind. Walk around.
Julia: I beg your pardon?
Chegley: You just said you don’t beg for anything.
Julia: That’s just a figure of speech.
Chegley: I’m interested in your figure without the speech. Move. Let me see if you can walk.
Julia: I can. [Walking] I come from a long line of pedestrians.
Chegley: Turn around. [As she does] You have a very well-formed fantail. [As she reacts] That’s Navy
terminology. I spent thirty years in uniform. [Then] Do you wear a girdle?
Julia: No, sir.
Chegley: I do. I have a bad back. Now you can sit down.

In addition to blatant sexism, this dialogue also makes an attempt to erase race. In order to do this Julia has to be treated like any other white woman in a work situation and in this circumstance she is being harassed—a common situation for women new to the work force in the late 1960s. The fact that a white man feels confident enough to be “fresh” with Julia implies that a potential relationship can be formed regardless of race. In some ways, however, this harassment only reinforces the racism that the show had committed to avoid. White men can and have historically sexually harassed black women. Black women have been regarded as more sensual since slavery. Because of this historical fact, the situation between Dr. Chegley and Julia reminds the viewer of the possibility of not only male power, as in the harassment, but the possibility of white male power which is reminiscent of white masters and their dominance over enslaved women.

Furthermore, the previous two exchanges set the stage for the way Julia would deal with the African American aspect of the show throughout the entire series. Instead of confronting issues of racial discrimination and prejudice, Julia diverted the viewers’ attention away from these issues. For example, in one episode Corey, Julia’s young son, is called a racially derogatory name (the N-word). The ensuing conflict within the show, however, is over whether or not Corey should beat the name-caller up. There is no real discussion of the word, its meaning, why it is harmful or hurtful, or why it is used by the child as something negative against Corey. There is just a diverted lesson about when a boy should fight and when he should not.

In another episode from the second season, “Romeo and Julia,” the topic is racial prejudice. Again, the show spotlights it by using Corey and his interaction with another child. Corey gets invited to the birthday party of a white girl he met at the clinic where Julia works. When he arrives at the party, it is clear that the girl’s mother did not know that Corey is black. Only seemingly polite conversation occurs between Julia and the other mother. There is an uncomfortable tension between the two women that is expressed only in facial expressions and body language, not in words. The awkward feeling is also made clear by the way Julia reacts when the door closes on her. Because of the conversation she just had, Julia is uncomfortable leaving her son at the party. She hesitates to walk away from the home, but does anyway. When Julia returns to pick up Corey, the woman seems to compliment him when she tells Julia how well he “fit in with the other children.” If the viewers closed their eyes and just listened to the conversation, they would have no way of knowing that there was a problem. For both women, the facial expressions are the telling displays of uneasiness with the conversation. The situation ends with little resolution or education as to why there was a problem with anything the girl’s mother said. The story could have been told exactly as written if it had been about two white children, one rich and one poor. The next sequence in the episode involves Julia getting ready for a date. Julia’s experience with the mother and her prejudice, or ignorance, is never brought up again during the remainder of the episode.

The series, however, was well received by television viewers. Julia remained highly rated throughout the three years it was on the air. Television commentators praised the sitcom just because “it [was] being done at all,” or “because it [had] no laugh track,” or “because it [was] being done by Miss Carroll.” The sitcom’s success could have been because Carroll was already a popular entertainer, having appeared more than sixty times on several television variety shows throughout the 1960s. White audiences would have been familiar and comfortable with her—almost as if she was an “acceptable” African American. The show may have also been popular because Julia was one of three shows that were placed into what Robin R. Means Coleman, Associate Professor of African American Studies at New York University, calls the “assimilationist era.” This was the era in which African Americans, once again, began to achieve star status on network television. The assimilationist era spans from 1968 to 1971 and includes the programs Julia, The Bill Cosby Show (1969-1971), and Barefoot in the Park (1970-1971). What sets these shows apart is that there is “a rejection of Blackness” and “no reference to Black culture…no sociopolitical conflicts…and difference yields to mainstream conformity.” A white audience, still uncertain about the social changes occurring within the African American community, or society as a whole, may have found these shows to be far less threatening and easier to watch.

In spite of all the praise the show received for being the “first to star an African American” or the “first to show an African American in a family setting,” Julia came under immense scrutiny, just as Amos ’n Andy had years before. Even before its premier, Julia became a lighting rod for criticism and debate when Kanter repeatedly told the press, as early as five months before the show debuted, that the show would “tell the truth.” He promised that they were, “going to show it like it is.” Diahann Carroll was also out publicizing her new hit show and giving the critics more of the same promises for Julia’s impact on the representation of African Americans on television. In December of 1968, Carroll told Time Magazine that “Julia will be an opportunity to show the world how black people live.” In Carroll’s defense, she may have been talking about the show based on her own belief that what she was saying was what the show would depict—African Americans in realistic portrayals. Nevertheless, it failed to do this. Many criticized the show for failing to represent historical or contemporary African American social and political struggles.

Some African American actors saw Julia as a lost opportunity. Talking about the sitcom, Otis Young, an African American actor, told the LA Times in August of 1971, that the show “was on for three years and that was three years lost. Lost for all of us, black and white. Three years where they could have been educating the white middle classes to what a Negro really is. And they didn’t.” In her autobiography, Carroll recounts that “Harry Belafonte agreed with the criticism…and came to see [her]…he walked into [her] dressing room and launched a full-scale assault on Julia, then asked [her] not to do it.”

Much of what has been written about Julia has also been brief statements of false facts about the show’s place in television history. Historian J. Fred MacDonald points out that “in the late 1960s, whenever a black entertainer appeared, he or she was expected to represent all African Americans, embodying the panorama of black life from slum to suburb. Because of its patent failure to do this, no successful black series was more controversial than Julia.”

Some critics have argued that Julia opened the door for other African Americans in television. But if one actor must be credited, that door was opened by Bill Cosby when he co-starred in I Spy during the three years immediately before Julia made it to the air. Cosby also starred in The Bill Cosby Show (1969-1971) during the same years as Julia. In addition to Cosby, between 1964 and 1971 there were thirty-six television shows on network television with African Americans in supporting, co-starring, or starring roles. Many critics also hailed Julia for being the first to star an African American actress, but blasted the series for its lack of reality in its portrayal of an African American woman. The show was criticized for having no male lead even though there were other shows on the air at the same time without a father present. Because Julia Baker ran the family, critics argued that the series seemingly perpetuated “stereotypes about a ‘Black matriarchy’ in which black men had no place.” Neither The Partridge Family (1970-1974) nor The Lucy Show (1962-1974) had male heads of households and they did not come under the same criticism as Julia. During the same period in which Julia was broadcast, there were five programs with single parents rearing their children. In addition to those programs previously mentioned, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1969-1972), Family Affair (1966-1971), and My Three Sons (1960-1972) were all headed by white, single or widowed men and aired with none of the same criticism.

Julia was additionally criticized for presenting an African American woman who was more white than black. Exhausted from defending her hit show, Carroll began to agree with some of the criticism against the series. At one point during the show’s first season, Carroll referred to her character as a “white Negro,” a character with very little “Negro-ness.” That “white Negro” label is still attached to the show today. Other criticism concerned the fact that there was no connection “to the rich tradition of black culture and history” within the show. The black characters never encountered a reality-based instance of racism. One reviewer called the show “trite, sugary, and preposterous.”

The producers did, however, attempt to answer some of the harshest criticism. There were subtle changes within the sitcom during the three-season run. By episode nine, Julia was wearing “the ‘natural’ or ‘Afro’ style” wig that was “considered a source of pride among Negroes eager to display their heritage.” The wig was short-lived. The producer also tried to bring in more African American characters, but mainly they were dates for Julia or patients in the clinic where she worked. The episodes in the third season continued to handle racial issues by using the same evasive dialogue and by diverting the issue to something easier for the viewing audience to laugh at.

Diahann Carroll approached the opportunity to play the lead role in Julia with enthusiasm, but by the end of the third season she had grown tired of the criticism and the need to defend the series. Some twenty years before writing her autobiography, Carroll’s anger over the criticism was clearly evident. In December of 1968 she told Time, “Why are we singled out as a TV show? The fact that the show went on the air at all is a plus, and a plus long overdue. Somebody decided, ‘Let’s have a black lady starring on TV in 1968 – in 1968. Why not attack that? That it took so long? Isn’t that an outrage?” In her autobiography, however, written fifteen years after Julia left the air, Carroll, downplayed the criticism the show received from its inception, arguing that “It was slightly controversial, but not enough to interfere with the ratings.” When discussing the criticism more directly and the comments by the producer, Hal Kanter, during his media blitz to publicize the sitcom, she admitted “looking back now, I can understand that we were probably asking for it because there was a great deal of advance publicity hyping Julia’s significance as a racial breakthrough.” Not wanting to deal with the criticism any longer, Carroll left the show at the end of the third season, ending the series.

African Americans and Television After Julia

African Americans have continued to find starring and co-starring roles on television since the 1960s. In the 1970s, however, television and the portrayal of African Americans reverted back to the stereotypical comedy that had been so criticized in the 1950s with Beulah and Amos ’n Andy. Three of the most popular shows of the 1970s were Sanford and Son (1972-1977), Good Times (1974-1979), and The Jefferson’s (1975-1985). According to Coleman, these shows were “[domestic comedies] in which Blacks operated in separate, unequal worlds from Whites…and African Americans interacted with each other with little to no interference by Whites. The Black characters united on the level of lived experience, dialoging about their conflicts with Whites or their (in)ability to move through or ‘on up’ in White America.”

The comedy within these shows was reminiscent of their predecessors in the early fifties. For example, Sanford and Son presented humor “out of the assumption that the characters are not very intelligent, but are wily in the sense of being quick to take advantage of each other.” This representation of African Americans was clearly informing the viewer that “outside of this kind of trickery, Blacks are not very bright.” The relationships between the black and white characters on these sitcoms are nonexistent or adversarial at best. Examples of this can be seen in Good Times. The
“characters are constantly doing battle. A white principal who would permit Black children to be passed without having been taught; an education system that excludes black culture; the economic system that keeps James (the father) alternating between working two arduous but temporary jobs and spending long periods unemployed.”

Or, on Sanford and Son, there is absolutely no relationship between the black characters and whites.
The negative African American stereotypes are apparent. Sanford and Son reinforced the idea that African Americans are unintelligent and that they lack family ties or any semblance of family warmth. Because of the sitcom’s overwhelming number of stereotypes, most regard Sanford and Son as portraying the most negative images. Good Times reinforced the matriarchal, domineering female stereotype. Even with this stereotype, Good Times gave the American viewers “a more positive portrayal of Blacks than any show on Network TV in the 1970s.” The Jefferson’s stereotyped African American males in its “coon” character, a negative stereotype that sets up the actor as “an amusement object or a black buffoon.” In the case of The Jefferson’s, this degrading image is represented by George Jefferson. The biggest example of this racial stereotyping is in the way that “[o]n the slightest provocation [George] would break out in an energetic, shuffling dance.” Additionally, George was “rarely seen working” in the dry cleaners that had given him the opportunity to get “movin’ on up.” He was depicted as being “inept in his marriage” and “he cheated and abused his friends.” The argument by the NAACP in the early 1950s against Beulah and Amos ‘n Andy concerning the representation of African Americans on television can be applied to these shows without much change in the wording.

In later television series,’ the negative comic African American stereotypes are constant. For example, the domineering black women over the emasculated black men in What’s Happening (1976-1979); white people coming to the rescue of “needy” African American children in Webster (1983-1987) and Different Strokes (1978-1986); and the “mammy” character re-emerges on the series Gimme A Break (1981-1987), where Nell Carter plays a silly, loud housekeeper and caregiver to a white family–closely reminiscent of Beulah.

The Cosby Show (1984-1992), is arguably one of the most successful sitcoms starring African Americans, and came under the same scrutiny as Julia. The biggest criticism has been that the show did not represent African American families in a 1980s American society in a realistic light. It has been argued that The Cosby Show “asserted that if Black people fail, they only have themselves to blame because any White person can point out the successful, affluent family on The Cosby Show and confirm their beliefs that affirmative action is no longer needed because Blacks now enjoy the same opportunities as Whites.” The series was also criticized because “the Huxtables proved that Black people can succeed; yet in so doing they also prove the inferiority of Black people in general (who in comparison with Whites, failed).” The Cosby Show brings television full circle, right back to Julia, as an assimilationist sitcom.

In the midst of all of the social and political changes happening for African Americans in the late 1960s, NBC put together a show that promised to give American television viewers a realistic image of African American life. Julia did not keep that, or any other promise. Julia does not hold up against the definition of “groundbreaking.” It has been purported as a groundbreaking television show for three main reasons. Critics identified it as the first series to star an African American, male or female, on television. NBC also promised, in the midst of all of the social and political changes happening for African Americans in the 1960s, a show that would give American television viewers a realistic image of African American life. Commentators pointed to Julia as a catalyst that changed the way in which African Americans were represented on television. Julia was none of this. Julia was actually the fourth television series to star an African American. It was preceded by The Beulah Show and Amos ’n Andy in the early 1950s and I Spy in the early 1960s. Additionally, Julia did not reflect the reality in the life of an African American family living in the tumultuous times of the late 1960s. Finally, and possibly most importantly, Julia did not impact the future of television and the representation of African Americans on television. There had been very little change in television when it came to the representation of African Americans in the years post Julia. African American stereotyping continued in television. One season after Julia left the air, Sanford and Son became a hit show and represented African Americans in the absolute worst light, driving the old stereotypes right back into the television viewer’s awareness, ensuring that old degrading images would be perpetuated again.

For all the things Julia was not, it definitely was a popular program among many shows that were on the air in a time when lighthearted comedy was a much needed relief from the societal upheaval happening across the nation. Perhaps part of its popularity related to its avoidance of racial issues, the “whiteness” of its star, and the impression it gave that the nation was making progress on racial issues. Whatever reasons explained its popularity, it was not because the show itself was groundbreaking. Being one on a list of many shows that brought laughter to a nation during a time of national turmoil does not make a show groundbreaking. Julia was not groundbreaking in content or representation, but at least the show was on television. The fact that NBC, in turbulent 1968, was willing to put a show on the air that centered on an African American woman who was not a house servant or traditional ‘mammy’ character is something that deserves recognition and a place in television history. It was in its execution where the show failed because it had great, unrealized potential. Where the show should fit into television history is in the way in which it made a small dent, or at least brought attention, to the need for accurate representation of African Americans on television. Without the dialogue about Julia, criticism and praise equally, shows like Beulah and Amos ‘n Andy may have continued to be the standard that all television programming starring African Americans would have been based.

Bibliography

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Carroll, Diahann with Ross Firestone, DIAHANN. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1986.

Cosby, Bill. “For A Touch Of Color.” Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File), September 17, 1967, N7, Pro Quest Historical Newspapers Los Angeles Times (1881-1985). http://proquest.umi.com.ezproxy2.csusm.edu/

Diehl, Digby. “Bid for a Historical Niche.” Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File), December 28, 1967, S12, Pro Quest Historical Newspapers Los Angeles Times (1881-1985). http://proquest.umi.com.ezproxy2.csusm.edu/

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18 thoughts on “An Historical Myth: Julia as a Groundbreaking Television Show

  1. When this series came on my mother ans sisters were nurses and my father in the military my life.was likr Corey’s and thr mirror allowef no assimilation !

      1. Hi Erica,

        I am including a link for you but the name of the episode would need to be researched. You could easily find it, probably through a IMDB and just look for the episodes that starred Jodi Foster and had the plot as outlined in the link I’ve attached. Good luck.

        https://books.google.com/books?id=eQ4vOPcCM40C&pg=PA121&lpg=PA121&dq=julia+episode+i+will+not+have+my+son+shining+shoes&source=bl&ots=Ab_JSgELZa&sig=wZuSDxzOZTBlQjF7ADm_ANN5OWc&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ejOwVI2qOY2pogSniYLYDg&ved=0CBwQ6AEwAA
        Melissa

    1. My mom and my dad were both a nurse and a teacher respectively in Toronto of the 1960’s, and we live a middle class life (our family even moved from downtown [Parkdale] to the inner suburbs [Willowdale].)So whatever the people who were against Julia were going on about, I as a Afro-Canadian man had (and have) no idea. At least Julia wasn’t any of the shows of the 1970’s or 80’s.

      1. Hi. I want to thank you for reading this entry. I think your perspective might have been different had you lived and been living in 1968 in the US. I do not know the history of African descendents in Canada. You and I probably would be much more aware of we learned. I’m going to dedicate some time to Canadian history. I can tell you that 1968 was the year MLK was assassinated and it was a very challenging time for AfAm in the US.

  2. I remember watching the show on our new color tv.Not all programs were in color, and one night the announcer says”watch Julia in color tonight”. I’ve been thinking about it since 1968.

  3. It really drives me nuts when I read the criticism leveled against “Julia.” People complain that the character could just as easily have been White. Why? Because she spoke as if she had an education? Because she was dignified, pretty and carried herself with grace? People complain that the show rarely dealt with racial issues and yet there are more than a few episodes where Julia makes some very candid and explicit commentary about racism. In fact, I’m often finding myself surprised with just how open the show dealt with racism. But I guess that because Julia handled these matters as an Adult and with words and reasoning, this wasn’t Black enough. I suppose, to please everyone, Julia should have put on a beret, and called in an army of militants in each episode to deal with racists.

    People also seemed to complain that so many Whites in the show were quick to accept Julia, at work and at her apartment complex. True, this wasn’t the case for many Blacks during that time, or even now. But there was indeed an episode that dealt with a woman who didn’t want Julia or her son in the building, fearing it would become a “tenement.” I thought that show was pretty bold for the time.

    Another aspect that gets lost when this show is discussed is that Julia and Corey actually would remember and discuss the father that died in Vietnam. First, how many shows even mentioned Vietnam, and a sitcom at that? And how many sitcoms dealing with a single parent had the guts to actually acknowledge the sadness of remembering someone who has died? I give credit to Family Affair for acknowledging the parents of Buffy, Jody and Cissy. The Partridge Family (which I DO love!) never, ever, EVER referred to the father’s passing. They didn’t even try to pretend that the kids missed him. The memory of Julia’s husband figured into many episodes.

    “Julia” faced the same problems many sitcoms featuring Black casts faced: everyone wanted the character and show to paint African-Americans with a very broad brush. Everyone wanted the show to place Julia in a ghetto and facing racial strife every day, feeling that would have been somehow more “Blacker” than what was broadcast. That’s as ridiculous as anything else. That show presented one woman who happened to live in a nice suburb. I don’t think people realize there were many African Americans who lived in nice neighborhoods and had relatively (and note I said “relatively”) happy lives. Why is that somehow a false representation of African Americans. Why can’t “Julia” just be a good sitcom and enjoyed like we enjoyed “That Girl” or “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”?

    I think the fact that your memory of “Julia” is based on the fact that it inspired you to want to be a nurse says it all about the show. “Julia” presented a great woman in a great profession and it motivated you to do something. The fact that she was African American just happened to be coincidental means that you didn’t get hung up on color- you just saw a dynamite person.

    I was young when “Julia” ran on NBC, but I remember it was big in our house. I remember it was big because there was an African American woman and her son on t.v. every week- and yet my folks never said stuff like “Hey, let’s watch that Black show!” We watched it the same way we watched every other show, because it was good. And…yes, I am Black and grew up in the 60’s and we lived in a great neighborhood. There were incidents of racism, but not daily and nothing dramatic. In fact, the situations Julia faced were more dramatic than what my folks went through. My dad was one of the first Black men to be hired at his workplace and yet, when I asked him how things were there, he said he never had any trouble.

    I often feel like Diahann Carroll and her battles with “Julia.” People constantly want to believe that my family and I lived in a ghetto and faced insurmountable odds at each and every turn. When I tell them our neighborhood was more like “Leave It To Beaver” (only with a primarily Black populace) people always give me a sort of disappointed “ohhh….”

    “Julia” was groundbreaking. It featured and African American woman who didn’t resort to grade-school- like put downs and one-liners like many of the other Black shows that we got in the 70’s. But I guess people call those shows progress because everyone acted outrageously and said pretty much anything to garner a laugh from people who wanted to believe those were the realities for all of us.

    1. Hi Mark,
      I am so glad you took the time to make such a thoughtful comment. I want you to know that this post was the work and passion as well as a labor of love. I still own the Julia lunch box I carried to school in first grade back in 1971. It’s not packed away. It is literally sitting on the top of my refrigerator today. I loved Julia.

      The best way I can respond to your comment is to say that I went into this research wanting to honor the work, but then found myself desperately needing to right history and to honor those who were forgotten in television history who came before but are often unnamed. I think it is important for you to know I have read the autobiography of both Diahann Carroll and Hal Kanter, the creator and writer of the show. I believe my paper covers that Kanter wrote the role for a white woman and changed very little to adapt the role for Diahann Carroll. Even Ms. Carroll is critical in her autobiography of the show and the way in which her character was portrayed. She, herself, felt it was “too white” and so my analysis was in line with Ms. Carroll’s own commentary on the show. She quit the show. That speaks volumes. I am proud to say that my post has been read and complimented by many African American women who agree with my research and found the post to be very enlightening. It opened discussions between adult daughters and their parents concerning how they felt about the show when it aired.

      I think for you, and for me, we remembered the show from a place of enjoyment and I, myself, had no idea of the world outside when I was watching the show at age 5, 6 and 7. I loved Sanford and Son as a child, but as I researched for this post, thirty plus years later, I realized just how the show was destructive to the work that the NAACP and African Americans were doing to change perceptions and bigoted ideals in the minds of white Americans.

      I grew up in San Diego. A very long way from the South and the world that African Americans were living there. I was far enough away that I did not have any knowledge of what was happening in Watts and LA, either. I honor the history of African Americans. My life’s work has been dedicated to educating ignorant white people, and interested African Americans, to the deep and rich history that is the African American experience. I, myself, have not experienced being an African American, but I am empathetic and find the people in history and those I meet every day to be more important to our understanding of why our society is what it is today. I do not ever write to attack or to minimize. I loved Diahann Carroll as Alexis Carrington in Dynasty as well and I loved Ms. Carroll’s proclamation to be the “first black bitch on television.” I would love to meet Diahann Carroll….and tried when I attended the dedication of the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington DC in 2011, but she went left and I was stuck in a line trying to meet Cicely Tyson on the right. I had a copy of my post in hand to give to her.

      Please know that I did my due diligence in researching for this post. I spent hundreds of hours reading and digging in archives. I read thousands of pages in books written on topics associated with this post and I read hundreds of newspaper articles from the period when the show was on TV. I have read hundreds of passages about the thoughts of the NAACP about the show as well. As a Historian, it is my job to consider ALL information and facts and to report history as objectively and as accurately as I am able. I believe I have done that here.

      Please do not let this blog add to you feeling NUTS because I believe the show was not groundbreaking in the way in which it is labeled in TV history books. I believe my point, and if you YouTube episodes, you will see that the show was no different from the shows that went before or that came after and THAT is why I wrote it was not groundbreaking. I am so glad it was on TV. We can see just how far we have come….which you might agree is not very far….in the way in which African Americans are portrayed on television.

      Melissa

  4. Hi Melissa. First let me compliment you on a very thoughtful and well-researched article. It definitely has given me pause to think. I am 52 years old, so like yourself I was born in the era of “Julia” and “I Spy”. Though you are historically accurate, I cannot agree with the criticism of the show. There is no such thing as perfection. And people do what they can under the circumstances from Hal Cantor to Diahnne Carroll. Being an adult in the racially charged Civil Rights era of the sixties is much different than being a child. Affirmative action gave my mother the opportunity at 35 (a single, African-American mother, by the way) the opportunity to earn a PhD in Psychology and end up helping children. It doesn’t matter how she got there. It’s the fact that she got there. And the fact that others, by observing her, could possibly feel that they could do the same. I notice how easy it is to criticize. That’s human nature. Interesting Lee enough to me. No one ever mentions the show “Benson” starring Robert Guillaume. He started off as a butler and ended up with his own series and being the smartest one on that show. But of course no one ever cites those examples. I just think we need to be careful when we start talking about the term realistic. What would be considered realistic today? Are we looking at “Good Times” versus “Scandal”, the show with a female African-American lead? And helmed by a female African American producer? To me, “Scandal” is just as damaging as “Amos n Andy” or any other show. Both in its portrayal of an African American and a woman. NBC’s Carmichael show is being lauded by audiences and critics alike. You know why? Because it “hearkens back to the days of the Norman Lear sitcoms like “The Jeffersons”, or “Good Times”, or “All in the Family” ( that’s a direct quote from one of the critics, by the way). Easy to play armchair television producer or executive 40 years later. I think we should consider that. I’m an African American male who was raised by a well-spoken, middle class single mother after his father passed away. And I’m pretty certain I wasn’t the only one.”Julia” allowed me to see ME on the screen. And that’s enough as far as I’m concerned 🙂

    1. Hi Kevin,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read and then comment on my labor of love. I think the show being important to you for the reasons you mentioned and the reasons it was important to me are so close to our hearts and life’s experiences that you felt the same pang in reading my work as I had in writing it. I may be a white woman from the west coast, but I saw horrors as a child, violent acts against African Americans, that have stayed with me my entire life. I lived and grew up 15 minutes from Tom Metzger so I am sure you can imagine what I saw from that. My niece is multiracial and I originally studied black history to be able to share insights with her about the ignorance in our nation so she would never take it personally when bigotry showed itself directly to her. I wrote this paper in defense of the deplorable representation of African Americans in TV, although that was not my original intention. I absolutely understand your comment about how, for a young African American boy, to see yourself on TV must have been empowering for you. I think the difference between your five year old self, sitting in front of your TV taking comfort in seeing Cory on the screen, and my five year old self sitting in front of my TV looking at a beautiful woman who was a nurse, is perspective. You were living in the world and experiencing the life that I was being told through the show “Julia” wasn’t so bad. Your mom, obviously an amazing mother and role model, seems to have been a woman determined to succeed at a time when oppression was the norm. It takes a wise person to find the opportunities that can allow us to pull ourselves up when there’s something else weighing us down. I thought about your comment all day. I did not take a single word lightly. I think the best thing I can say is this. In looking at our President, a man I voted for, twice, I found a parallel in your comment about my paper and what I told my great-nephew when he realized the President was the same as him. I think that we should find strength, positivity, good in seeing ourselves being successful in the world around us through the successes of those who are most similar to us. I want my nephew to believe that he can do anything in this world because he works hard, tries hard, is honest, and a good person. When he sees President Obama THAT is what we show him. But, it’s important for him to see the struggle President Obama has had forced upon him by those who still feel the need to oppress because THAT is still an unfortunate reality of the society my nephew is growing up in. So, in the case of “Julia,” I think it’s great that in 1968 America that you saw yourself on that TV screen and felt like every other kid in America – able to see themselves on TV like the Brady kids were for me. But, I think it’s important to understand how white Americans had racial stereotypes reinforced by the show because someone, the network or industry or advertisers, still felt the need to oppress. It’s also important to realize how those same oppressive entities were telling you, and by allowing Cory to be played in a manner that could be argued was the pickaninny stereotype personified, was saying something to you as well. BUt your mom had the wisdom to show you by her example that she, and you, could overcome those racial stereotypes and make it in spite of the oppressive society in which you lived in 1968. I never considered Benson. I’m going to see what was being written about that show to see if I can add it. Please know, we are on the same side. I want to open the minds of those who never realized their ideas concerning life for African Americans in 1968 America was being formed by the TV shows that used racial stereotypes to reinforce our beliefs and ignorance. But also to show them by uncovering those lies and revealing just how the reality of life for African Americans was far different than TV wanted us to believe. I hope this made sense. My heart is absolutely in the right place.

  5. Hi, I’m catching up on the show now being aired on the ASPiRE Channel. It’s a blast from the past, I vaguely remember it, but my memories are positive. I was between ages 8-11 when it aired. I skipped over most of this research here – for the time being – because I want to watch it unencumbered by truths, controversies, and historical discrepancies. ( Kind of like loving Daniel Boone TV show, but realizing the historical truth was stretched and Mingo wasn’t even played by a Native American, but brilliantly and attractively done by actor-singer Ed Ames. You get the idea. ) I do want to say it is refreshing to revisit these shows from the late 60’s & early 70’s to see them now with adult eyes. I’m impressed with the shows, such as Julia, that were done in present time. They are like time capsules regarding fashion and style, even buildings, inventions such as office equipment used, and even the cars! Diahann Carroll proves to be a timeless beauty. Julia would be considered stunning and undated looking if she stepped out of the TV into modern life, except for that nice nurse’s hat and attire, sadly we don’t see that anymore. I am also impressed with the weight and neatness of the actors, everyone was so trim and thin back then, you can really see the beauty in their faces, their bone structure, unhidden by plumpness. My son spent a year studying in France, and upon arrival back in the US, he said he immediately noticed how heavy Americans are compared to our European counterparts. Yes, there’s always stretches of the imagination regarding TV, regardless of ethnicity. I remember people squabbling that families weren’t like the Cleavers, the Cunninghams, and moms didn’t really dress like Donna Reed. Well mine did! Ladies did not wear pants back then, I swear! So, my comment basically is that I’m enjoying the visual beauty of the show and I’ll not take the storyline too seriously. It is billed as a Sitcom, after all. Loving those 60′ Mod styles – that’s Hollywood.

    1. Hi Jandy.

      I loved this show and, like you, I remember it fondly. When I began this research I wanted to share my love for the show. Instead, my research showed that my childhood show was just another “white” attempt to tell the story of an African American woman in the late 60s.

      I hope you read my research. It was a labor of love. As a historian I had to write the research as found.

      Thank you for your comment. Enjoy the show.

      Melissa

  6. I think you’re nuts – and you dig WAY too deep. “Sanford and Son” was funny – Redd Foxx is was a genius, and he came off as more of a cantankerous grouch than “dumb.”

    1. Well, thank you for your feedback. I’m going to post your comment so those who read and use my blog as research or to assign as required reading (both have been done by high school students/teachers and college students/professors) can see why it’s so important for our youth to understand how poorly African Americans are represented in TV and films. Scholars would disagree with you that I’m nuts, but would probably agree you should read some of the books listed in the Bibliography I posted with my post. You might find, after reading, you will agree more with my research than you do currently. I sincerely appreciate the time you took to comment.

  7. I loved Julia! I had the lunchbox AND the doll! I also had a nurse’s uniform like Julia, but still called myself the doctor! I was a year or two younger than you when it aired and was super excited to see people who looked like me on television! Even looking back, as a professional writer today, it was still good TV. I grew up in Mississippi in the 60s and 70s. I was the daughter of two college-educated professionals and Julia’s life was far more similar to my life than several other shows that have aired with black lead characters. Yes, there were many missed opportunities to educate the masses through Julia, but as I’m sure you know, television will never be ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE. I appreciate your in depth research and I certainly learned some things by reading your “labor of love,” but I’m more struck by some of the comments about the later shows, i.e. Good Times, The Jeffersons, and Sanford and Son. Did they all show some aspects that possibly degraded African-Americans? Absolutely. But I also contend that they depicted reality for SOME segments of the African-American population as well. But more importantly, they were simply good, funny, mostly wholesome TV shows. While Lamont and Fred G. Sanford “went at it” a lot, their love and admiration was still evident…far more so than the back-biting, fights, and attacks of many other shows during that era or since. We don’t look to shows with white lead characters to carry the weight of the entirety of White America, so why do we expect that of shows starring a predominantly Black cast? Many viewers were critical of The Cosby Show because it wasn’t “realistic,” but indeed it was very real for many families–just not the majority. Most shows have to be taken at face value as one person or one family’s story. It doesn’t have to speak FOR or TO every viewer. I enjoyed the read!

    1. Hi Danese,

      Thank you so much for your very personal and insightful comment. I appreciate it so much when folks share their thoughts with me. Yes, this wss truly a labor of love. Thank you for acknowledging that as it has been lost on others.

      I am heading to the National African American History Museum in August and I am excited to view the Julia Paperdolls. There is actually a blurb on the museum’s website about the show that influenced two little girls who lived two very different experiences growing up. I found the way the museum places Julia into tv history to be far more acceptable than any other source I have found. They state that Julia is the first tv show to depict an African American family. I can go with that, to a point, far better than erasing the history of the three actresses who starred in Beulah in the 1950s.

      Your comment concerning tv shows with a predominately white character not being held to represent an entire white America…I would argue that yes, there sure has been. Murphy Brown was so controversial when she decided to have a baby outside of marriage, even the VP of the United States took issue and commented biblically about the message the show was sending. Representation of any minority, women and a gender included, does make an impression on the way humans see those who are not like them. As a white child, I loved most of the shows I discussed, but viewing them again as an adult armed with knowledge of stereotyping, I could see the way my own perceptions and understandings of how AfAm people lived and worked and interacted had shaped my own views. It’s so important to create shows that minimize, or eliminate, racial or gender or gay or disabled….etc….stereotyping.

      I enjoy when a comment makes me think. That’s how I came to remember Murphy Brown. Thank you.

      Melissa

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