The Unsung Legacy of Black Characters on Soap Operas

Well before primetime shows like Empire, daytime TV was the place where diversity and complexity learned to coexist.

I’m a fourth-generation soap watcher who got hooked on the shows the way a lot of fans do: spending summers watching TV alongside an older relative during school breaks. In her later years, my great-grandmother kept two TVs and two VCRs in her apartment—one to tape the ABC soaps, and the other for the CBS soaps, of which her all-time favorite was The Young and the Restless. Y&R, its nickname in the soap world, was also my grandmother’s favorite and my mother’s, so naturally it became mine. By far, Y&R was the easiest to keep up with: You could tune out for a week without missing anything crucial to the overarching story, and it was accessible because, unlike some other programs, the same actors stayed in the same roles for years.

But another big reason Y&R was beloved in my family was its black characters, who flourished in the 80s and 90s: They began as background figures, but slowly evolved into pillars of their fictional community. Born the year The Cosby Show premiered, I grew up watching 227, Amen, Family Matters, and A Different World not knowing how hard it was to integrate TV; for me, black folks were already there. There was a point in my childhood when I knew Drucilla, Olivia, Neil, Nathan, and Mamie, Y&R’s powerhouse stable of 90s black characters, better than some of my own cousins.

So it's interesting to see primetime television and streaming services like Netflix being heralded for ushering in a new age of black television, as if we were never allowed to be ourselves onscreen before. But daytime, before primetime, provided valuable space for black characters to be layered—and for viewers, black and otherwise, to appreciate their complexity. Every time I see these new-school characters, I remind myself of where I’ve seen them before. Well before Annalise Keating of How to Get Away With Murder was a tough, black woman lawyer with a complicated interracial marriage, there was Jessica Griffin on As the World Turns, an attorney who faced scrutiny before marrying her white fiance, Duncan. It wasn’t all that shocking when Mary Jane Paul on BET's Being Mary Jane stole her boyfriend’s sperm if you'd already seen Virginia Harrison carrying around semen from a sperm bank–with a turkey baster!–to impregnate one of her rivals on Sunset Beach.

In many ways, daytime soaps preceded the kinds of diverse approaches to storytelling now championed by Shonda Rhimes dramas. But their contributions weren’t valued then, and they’re still largely ignored today. Black soap actors have rarely won mainstream recognition for their portrayals, and many of their characters’ storylines are lost to history as the genre's popularity continues to wane among viewers.


Little has been written on the subject of diversity in daytime. But in the genre's earliest years, some soap operas embraced unusual nuance that paved the way for a wider range of characters. Irna Phillips, who created soaps including Guiding Light, As The World Turns, and Another World, told a talk show host shortly before her death in 1973 that “as a writer, there isn’t a black or a white, or a square or a bad joke … We’re all brave. None of us are either black or white, or bad or good.” Phillips wasn’t referring to race: Many of her soaps only featured blacks in supporting or recurring roles well into the 1970s.

But she did champion a three-dimensional style of TV storytelling, giving the genre freedom for characters—male and female, husbands and their wives—to be accepted for their flaws. This, by extension, allowed for future soap writers to wean audiences onto equally flawed characters of color. As absurd as the genre can be, early soaps frequently focused on serious, everyday worries: The origins of Guiding Light trace back to a clergyman who fretted about what kind of messages to deliver to his flock, and the 1960s delved deeper into topics like the Vietnam War and abortion.

Not that it was easy. In 1968, daytime’s first black heroine was Carla Benari on One Life To Live, the ABC soap created by Agnes Nixon, who was a friend of Phillips. Played by actress Ellen Holly, Carla was actually “Clara,” a housekeeper’s light-skinned daughter passing for white to avoid the discrimination of the day. In a controversial storyline, "Clara" charmed a white man but was eventually forced to confess to her heritage. Previously unaware of Holly's true ethnicity, viewers in the 1960s, particularly in the South, were aghast. To be clear, Holly was not the first black actress to appear on daytime, but her presence, paved the way for OLTL to bring on black actors as love interests; Carla married in 1973, the soap world’s first black wedding.

Other soaps began testing the waters with black characters throughout the 1970s, recruiting actors from the stage to play doctors, nurses, and police officers. In other words: stock characters who could come and go as a storyline dictated. A big murder mystery storyline? Bring in a supporting black detective. A leading heroine with a health crisis? Treated by the black nurse. Fully fledged storylines involving romance, marital affairs, and other typical soap plot devices were rare.

Then, Days of Our Lives introduced a black family, the Grants, in the mid-1970s. Its female heroine, Valerie Grant, shared daytime’s first black-white kiss in 1977, even though the romance didn’t last. Valerie was due to marry David, her white boyfriend, but a flood of angry letters from viewers protesting the union—roughly only a decade after some states lifted bans on such pairings in real life—led to writers sending Valerie off to medical school instead. And then, the Grant family disappeared, abruptly written out of the script.

Creating black heroes and heroines, it seems, meant giving them their own families and storylines—but still keeping them at a healthy distance from white characters. This meant limited screen time, no interracial romances, back-burner plots, and limited mobility. To this day, viewers identify General Hospital with the iconic Luke and Laura coupling, a romance that took fans across the world as the pair found themselves embroiled in devious plots engineered by international criminals. During that time period, the soap’s sole black couple, Bryan and Claudia, stayed at home in Port Charles. While Luke and Laura regularly appear in countdowns of popular soap couples, memories of Bryan and Claudia are limited to fan recollection.

Behind the scenes, actors spoke of their confusing place in the soap world—and in show business itself. Despite shows like Good Times, The Jeffersons, and What’s Happening!! having prominent places on primetime, roles for black actors seemed scarce. Soaps, which offered the chance to be exposed to millions of viewers and the possibility of steady work, seemed like an oasis.

"There is nothing in other fields for black actors today—we screwed ourselves with the poor quality of the 'black' films made in the last six or seven years, and about the only thing on Broadway has been musicals,” the actor John Danelle, who played a Dr. Frank Grant on All My Children, told People in 1978, referring to the Blaxploitation films of the day. “At least on the soap, we are role models for just middle-class people—nice, normal people."


The 1980s was the the turning point for both soap operas and black actors on Broadway and in Hollywood. It was the decade of Dreamgirls, The Cosby Show, The Color Purple, and Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson as superstars, showing that black entertainers were a force and that black consumers would pay to see them. In daytime, the 80s brought on “supercouples”: star-crossed young lovers, living against-all-odd romances torn from the pages of harlequin novels. The casts of soaps began trending younger, straying away from the troubles of older married couples and instead revolving around youthful lovers, their friends, and their meddlesome relatives.

In 1982, All My Children introduced Jesse and Angie. Jesse was Dr. Grant’s nephew, and Angie was the daughter of a wealthy black couple. They were friends and frenemies of other burgeoning young players in Pine Valley: Tad, Liza, Jenny, and Greg. Despite the soap world’s trouble with interracial relationships, it had no problem bringing actual racial tensions to the forefront. Liza falsely accused Jesse of rape, thinking that a black man could be easily convicted. Jesse was exonerated, and later pursued a romance with Angie. Their parents didn’t want them together, making for a classic Romeo-and-Juliet tale. Defying those odds, they became daytime’s first black supercouple.

Other networks took notice. Another World began expanding the character of Quinn Harding, a black female architect, by giving her love interests, relatives, and friends. So did Days of Our Lives, which gave the black police officer Abe Carver more to do besides solve crime. In one bizarre storyline on The Young and The Restless, Tyrone Jackson, a black law student, disguised himself as a white man to take down a crime ring. Even Ryan’s Hope, which focused on an Irish-American family in New York, slowly integrated, having one of its characters take in a black teenage runaway, played by eventual superstar Tichina Arnold.

"Even though other actors of color had been on the show, they existed alone, without family; they were a community of one, but we were there front and center,” Petronia Paley, who played Quinn, told an Another World fansite in 2009. (Before Paley, Another World employed one black actor: Vera Moore, who played a nurse that only existed to treat ill white characters.) “Diversity and inclusion are the buzzwords now, but ‘back in the day’ in [the fictional] Bay City, there was a community of people of color who were movers and shakers making a difference. They were there with lives and loves and troubles just like everybody else.”

By the late 1980s, with black characters almost fully woven into the fabric of soaps, viewers finally seemed ready to accept interracial couplings—usually between black women and white men. When All My Children killed off Jesse, the soap paired Angie with Cliff, a white doctor. Tom Hardy, a scion of the long-running General Hospital Hardy family, married Simone, a doctor—daytime’s first interracial marriage. As The World Turns gave viewers Jessica and Duncan, a popular pairing that dealt with fears and prejudices from both of their families leading to their 1992 on-screen marriage.

The 80s closed with a monumental experiment in black daytime: NBC’s launch of Generations, the first soap with a core black family in its inception. But it was canceled in 1991 and is largely overlooked now, save for an infamous catfight featuring a then-unknown Vivica A. Fox. Even then, actors on the show still commented on the awkward place they had in portraying blacks on screen. "The younger generation, when they see (negative roles) all the time, they think maybe that is something we ought to do—be a pimp, sell drugs, drive a big Cadillac," Taurean Blacque, a Hill Street Blues alum who played a leading role on Generations, told the Los Angeles Times. "I think our responsibility to the younger people coming up is to project a positive image."


The earliest storyline I can remember actively keeping up with as a kid was when Jill Abbott—a lady on Y&R who I knew was always fighting with Katherine, but could never remember why—cheated on her husband John. John was confiding his marriage troubles in Mamie, his black housekeeper, who was the first woman I saw Jill go toe-to-toe with other than Katherine. Then, one day, John kissed Mamie.

In black households, we are taught to root for the black person on TV. We root for the black characters to win on game shows, and we root for the black maid who’s clearly falling in love with her employer. It seemed like Mamie and John were being set up for one of those star-crossed, supercouple romances; despite the soap trend of catering to younger audiences, Y&R always found a way to keep viewers just as interested in older characters like Mamie and John. Alas, Jill paid $1 million to Mamie to disappear—I remember her showing the check to her niece, Drucilla—and the maid did just that.

But even though Mamie was gone, the other black characters weren’t. The big, black storyline on Y&R in the 1990s dealt even-handedly with an issue plaguing African-Americans in real life: AIDS. Y&R’s writers, already giving Mamie’s two nieces and their husbands more than enough soapy material to chew on (including illiteracy, a complicated pregnancy, an illegal porn operation, and strained parental relations) gave its black actors a meaty storyline in which one of its black heroines might have been infected with the virus after her husband HAD had an extramarital affair. These episodes aired in the wake of Magic Johnson announcing he had the disease and Arthur Ashe, once America’s best tennis player, succumbing to its effects.

It’s no coincidence that as black storylines became more popular, more black viewers started tuning in, and following those actors to projects outside soaps. Victoria Rowell and Kristoff St. John, who played Dru and Neil on Y&R, guest-hosted Soul Train at the height of their popularity; so did Mari Morrow from One Life to Live and Renee Jones from Days of Our Lives. Almost all those actors have at least one recognizable project outside the soaps. And while many soap stars eventually transcend their daytime beginnings—Meg Ryan, Melissa Leo, and Julianne Moore among them—successful black actors who play in Hollywood unquestionably have followings because of their soap roles, such as Debbi Morgan and Shemar Moore.

As America became more comfortable with seeing blacks on screen, soap viewers  also became more comfortable with risky, sometimes hilarious storylines. Passions, though short-lived, had daytime’s first black lesbian character. An aforementioned plot on Sunset Beach had Virginia stealing a black doctor’s sperm, drugging her ex-boyfriend Michael’s current lover, Vanessa, and impregnating her with a turkey baster. Dru and Neil had divorced by the 2000s, but reconciled while working for rival cosmetics companies; their wedding in Japan featured high-flying capers with employees on both sides searching for a rare Japanese flower that contained a key ingredient used in a hair-straightening product for black women. But when, until then, had black women’s hair products ever been discussed on a soap opera?


There has been much written about the slow death of daytime soap operas, as high production costs and declining viewership make the genre unprofitable for networks. Only four soaps remain on the air, down from an all-time high of more than a dozen. Like a lot of industries, veteran actors have been cut, and cheaper actors have been brought in.

But another storyline is emerging: the lack of diversity among the remaining shows. Despite nearly 30 years on air, The Bold and the Beautiful, set in the Los Angeles fashion world, has rarely featured any leading Latino or Asian characters, or even gay characters. Behind the scenes, few black writers or producers have ever moved to the upper reaches of control of any soap. Days of Our Lives has one contract black actor, while The Bold and The Beautiful, The Young and the Restless, and General Hospital each have three. Many black actors are in recurring roles, but like the old days, they can come and go at a storyline’s notice.

Perhaps no one has been more vocal about the lack of diversity in daytime than the aforementioned Y&R actress Victoria Rowell, who hasn’t been seen on a soap since her character plunged off a cliff in 2007. In the years since, Rowell has spoken of harsh treatment behind the scenes of the show, ranging from lack of proper hairdressing for black actresses, cheapened wardrobe and prop choices for black characters, and outright racist comments from actors and crew on set. Ellen Holly, who played the groundbreaking Carla/Clara on One Life To Live, wrote of similar treatment in her memoir, saying that she was paid significantly less than white actors, despite her storyline bringing in viewers. In her memoir, Holly said a lawyer for ABC told her: “You should be grateful you have the job at all. Need I remind you how few jobs there are out there for black actresses?'”

Even the successful, highly visible black actors found acknowledgement difficult to come by. Only twice have black actors won in leading Daytime Emmy categories: Al Freeman Jr. in 1979 for One Life To Live and Darnell Williams in 1985 for All My Children. Tallying up black nominees is even more frustrating. Much is made about All My Children’s Susan Lucci having won a Lead Actress Emmy after 19 nominations, yet it took until 2009—35 years after the first ceremony—for a black actress, Debbi Morgan, just to receive a nomination. She remains the only black Lead Actress nominee and Supporting Actress Emmy winner.

I’m no longer the avid soap watcher I used to be, and not just because of the industry's flaws. I tuned into Y&R recently—it airs on CBS in the afternoon and on the Pop cable network at night—for the first time in awhile. One black character from the old days, Neil, was there, but he seems to be the only one. He’s blind, for some reason or another, and the woman he married, Hillary, is sleeping with his son to get revenge for something Neil had done in the past. But it's an old storyline the show has done before.

Compare that with the can’t-miss dynamics between Lucious and his sons on FOX's hit show Empire, or the ever-scheming Annalise on How to Get Away With Murder. There’s enough intrigue and mystery among primetime characters  to make the old "woman sleeps with father and son" storyline seem as stale as it is. And so while it might be too late to save the soaps, I don’t think it’s too late to acknowledge the many black characters who made these fictional worlds such an interesting place to live.