Influential Black Families Who Inspire Us All to Make a Difference!

Black History Month is American History, Learn More with Your Kids!

By Gillian Pridgen / Brenna Gutell January 13, 2024

Black families have played a significant role in American history, influencing our culture from the earliest days into the future. February is Black History Month and serves as a reminder for all of us to recognize, honor and learn more about the contributions and achievements made by African-Americans. It's also a perfect time to reflect on the many Black families that have shaped on our lives, whether through music, entertainment, culture, invention or political activism.

Here you will find information about twelve of the many influential Black families from the past and today plus eight more created for entertainment, although they are fictional I felt it important to include some of the most notable Black TV families who've also influenced American culture throughout the years. 

Here are just a few of the many Black Families that made their mark in the U.S. and around the world, some you may know and some you may not - either way it's an opportunity for your family to learn more:

The Nicholas Brothers

Brothers Fayard (1914–2006) and Harold (1921–2000) Nicholas were a dynamic duo whose amazing tap dancing performances go back to the 1940s, though they continued performing on stage, film, and television into the 1990s. Here is a video of them performing "Jumpin' Jive" in the 1943 movie "Stormy Weather."

The brothers grew up in Philadelphia with their college-educated musician parents. Their parents played in pit orchestras for Black vaudeville shows, later forming their own group, the brothers spent much of their time around the theater watching many of the entertainers. The brothers rose to fame on the jazz circuit during the Harlem Renaissance later performing at The Cotton Club, on Broadway, in Hollywood Films, on television and around the world.

"They are your favorite dancers' favorite dancers."

That's what Nicole Nicholas, granddaughter of Black dance legends, the Nicholas Brothers, has to say about the dynamic duo of Fayard and Harold Nicholas. "Even if people do not know them, the people that they do know were admirers of them and of their work," she explains. "And if you see them and you see any of their films, you'll never forget."

The Johnson Family

John Harold Johnson (1918-2005) was a publisher, inovator, philanthropist and entrepreneur who founded the Johnson Publishing Company in Chicago, Illinois and his magazines; Ebony and Jet, showcased positive images of Black families with American readers for more than 70 years. In 1942, after graduating from the University of Chicago, he acted on an idea he had previously, with a loan against his mother’s furniture and money raised through charter subscriptions, he launched Negro Digest, which later became Black World. Three years later, he launched Ebony, which remained the number-one African-American magazine. 

In 1951, Johnson Publishing expanded again, with the creation of Jet, the world’s largest African-American news weekly magazine. Then expanding again from magazines to book publishing, then adding cosmetics and beauty products and television production. He eventually became chairman and CEO of Supreme Life Insurance, where he started his career and where he was inspired to create Negro Digest.

Although known for it's positive images of Black families he also didn't flinch away from showing the reality: On September 15, 1955 Jet published a picture of Emmett Till's mutilated body after it had arrived in Chicago from Mississippi. It was one of the most famous and powerful pictures from the era. See the photo Emmett Till's mother wanted you to see, the one that inspired a generation to join the civil rights movement.

In 1979, Robert and Sheila founded the groundbreaking Black Entertainment Television (BET) Cable station and entertainment company targeting African Americans by offering original programming and diverse black musical video programming. 

While Johnson founded the company, it became a family affair: His wife, Eunice, co-created ventures such as Ebony Fashion Fair; his daughter, Linda, served as president and chief executive officer; and his son, John H. Johnson Jr., was a staff photographer who died at 25.

The King Family

Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of the most recognized and respected civil rights activists in the world. His wife, Coretta Scott King, continued on with his legacy after his assassination, as did his children, granddaughter and extended family who are furthering his work to this day.

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee

This married couple were activists in the civil rights movement as well as entertainers. They played a key role in many of the most significant moment of the Civil Rights movement. From the African-American theater to Broadway, on to Hollywood and then some. Ossie and Ruby were accomplished each on their own as well as together. They raised three children together each carrying on their parents legacies in their own ways.

Dee grew up in Harlem, NY starting out with the American Negro Theater where she worked with many notable African-American actors. She later went on to Broadway where she met Ossie. Then on to film where she earned national recognition for many of her rolls including "The Jackie Robinson Story." Ossie Davis grew up in a small town in Georgia, very much influence by his father, a successful railroad engineer who was a local hometown legend. Ossie left college to pursue acting and later after serving in the army he headed to New York. Ossie, also a screenwriter began writing plays before he left the Army. He used his writing as a voice for African-Americans, becoming a role model for generations to come. His success came quickly as well as his influence in African-American Communities. In addition to acting and screenwriting he began directing, this was at a time when there were few black directors. Later he added author to his long list of accomplishments.

Their stories merged when they were cast opposite each other in the same Broadway play, the first of many they would be in together. Later they were both in the original 1959 production of “A Raisin in the Sun.” They appeared together and separately in over 50 movies, including several by Spike Lee. They were known for their many groundbreaking rolls in film, theater and television. Davis died in 2005, Dee nine years later. Now the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has acquired the couple’s joint archive: more than 145 bankers boxes of photographs, letters, scripts and other material that document 60-plus years together on stage, screen and the front lines of social activism.

Quincy Jones and Family

Quincy (1933) is an Academy award nominated, Grammy award winning, trailblazing music legend. He's worn a lot of hats over his six decade long career from musician to composer, record producer, filmmaker, magazine publisher and philanthropist. You'll find his musical touch is everywhere, including movies and TV. His love of music started when he was young and later encouraged by his teenage friend, Ray Charles. He worked with many musicians over the years helping them, including some of the biggest in the industry such as Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson and Celine Dion.

Quincy has seven children; six daughters and one son, some who entered the entertainment industry. You might know one of his daughters, actress Rashida Jones, you might know her from "The Office."

Diana Ross and Family

Diana is the ultimate superstar; she's a chart topping singer, actress, movie star, producer and fashion icon. She began singing with group called the Primettes made up of childhood friends, renamed the Supremes, then one more time as Diana Ross and the Supremes before they broke up for good, just before venturing out on her own solo career. 

Diana has 5 children; her oldest, musician, singer and songwriter, Rhonda Ross Kendrick; well known actress Tracee Ellis Ross most recently on the TV show "Black-ish;" Chudney Ross; oldest son, Ross Arne Naess; and her youngest, actor and producer, Evan Ross.

The Jackson Family

This family's road to fame began in Gary, Indiana with Joe (Joseph) and Katherine Jackson and their children. This working class family would grow to nine kids in all living in a 2-bedroom home where the family often sang and danced together long before they became musical royalty. Joe was a musician playing in a band, Katherine sung and played the piano. Early on Joe recognised his boy's musical talent and turned his focused on them. He was very strict and they spent long hours not only practicing their music, but dancing as well. Starting out with three as "The Jackson Brothers," later adding two and more famously becoming "The Jackson 5" and down the road simply the "Jacksons" with the makeup of the group changing over time. The most notable of the siblings Michael and Janet went on to achieve amazing and long solo careers. 

After winning a local competition in 1966, they went on to win the famous Amateur Night competition at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem in 1967 where they gained the attention of Motown, who signed them immediately. Right after the release of their first album "Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5" they were booked to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show on December 14, 1969. They became a worldwide sensation and eventually one of the most influential families in music history.

Michael Jackson (1958-2009), know to many as the King of Pop left to pursue his own solo career resulting in some of the biggest chart topping albums and videos. He was famous for his innovative dancing style and fashion trends. Youngest Janet Jackson is not only know for her musical talents, but her acting as well starting out as Penny on Good Times, Different Strokes and many hit films. Many of the Jackson children and their offsprings have continued with careers in music and entertainment.

Flickr and WikiMedia

Sisters Phylicia and Debbie 

Phylicia Rashad (1948) and Debbie Allen (1950) are both famous entertainment icons, each with their own list of accomplishments in and out of the entertainment industry, not to mention the many awards and nominations they've each earned. With different last names not everyone realizes they are sisters, but they are, and continue to be a close knit family. The sisters grew up in Houston, Texas with their mother Vivian Ayers Allen, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet and cultural activist and their father Andrew Arthur Allen Jr., a theater loving dentist. They also have two brothers; “Tex” Arthur Allen Jr., a jazz musician and Hugh Allen, a real estate banker. Their parents divorced and for a period their mother took them to live in Mexico to escape racism of the U.S. 

Both sisters developed an interest in the arts early on, with Phylicia drawn to theater and Debbie to dance. Despite the challenges of segregation, their family encouraged and supported them in every way. They both have children, some of who followed their lead into the world of entertainment.

Phylicia is an accomplished actress, singer, stage director and more who studied theater at Howard University, later moving to New York City where she began her career on Broadway. Her early roles include; Deena Jones in "Dreamgirls;" a munchkin in "The Wiz;" a TV role on the ABC soap opera "One Life to Live," and one of her most iconic roles as Clair Huxtable on the classic family sitcom "The Cosby Show" (1984-92), for which she earned two Emmy Award nominations. Mother to William Lancelot Bowles III who live in Los Angeles out of the spotlight and daughter Condola Rashad, who's also an actress.

Deborah “Debbie” is an impressive dancer, choreographer, singer-songwriter, actress, director, producer and a former members of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. She began dancing when she was very young and when she was twelve she auditioned for the Houston Ballet School, but was turned down because of the color of her skin. Luckily, a Russian dancer who saw her perform was so impressed that he secretly enrolled her in the school where she eventually became one of the top students. She had roles on Broadway, then film and television, her first T.V. role was on the popular show "Good Times" later she stared on a short lived-series "3 Girls 3,". In 1980 she had a small part as dance instructor Lydia Grant in the film Fame, a role that she reprised in the 1982 television series of the same name. The series only ran for a single season, but Allen earned three Emmy awards for her choreography. She opened the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in New York and launched a skin care collection for women of color.  She has two children, Vivian Nixon a dancer and actress and Norman Nixon Jr., a basketball player, actor and producer.

The Wayans

Want to laugh? You will if you catch one of the many Wayans movies or TV shows. This family of 10 sibling have been the creative force in front of and behind the scenes as; actors, writers, comedians, and filmmakers - they've been keeping us laughing for decades. They are responsible for many 1990s hits on both television and film ranging from the groundbreaking TV sketch comedy, "In Living Color" to the horror spoof "Scary Movie," that became a five-film franchise. In the 2000s they would bring us even more with the family TV sitcom, "My Wife and Kids," and the action / comedy "Lethal Weapon." It didn't stop at the 10 siblings, their many offspring also followed in their footsteps.

Richard, Venus and Serena Williams

The sisters, Venus William (1980) and Serena Williams (1981) grew up in Compton, California with their mother, Oracene Price, a nurse, and Richard Williams, who founded a security service. Their father taught them to play tennis, taking them to public courts to play, he was the driving force behind his daughters road to Tennis Stardom. They spent many hours, early and late practicing with their tough coach dad, later moving to Florida so they could attended a tennis academy. They both became superstars and icons of the tennis world at a young age, not only breaking barriers, but records too all while winning countless championships. The would go on to play in the Olympics, the French Open and Wimbledon just to name a few.

Their dad Richard was determined to see his daughters succeed, possibly even before they were born. He later authored Black and White: The Way I See It and  he's the central figure in the movie, "King Richard," starring Will Smith.

Venus, the oldest of the two sisters, and the first to compete and win championships, turning pro at the age of 14 and she's just not ready to retire yet. Early on her father recognized her talent and began working with her as coach. She has her own brand of activewear "Eleven by Venus Williams." At a young age she became aware of the unequal pay between men and women is sport, so she took up the fight to help women in sports earn equal pay with the initiative #PrivilegeTax

Serena wanted to do everything her older sister did and followed in her footsteps while forging her own path to success at the same time. She was well known for her fashion on the court, eventually following this other passion and enrolling in fashion school, after which she launched a clothing line and later a line of jewelry. In 2022 she retired from the court, but don't worry she's plenty busy. Mid career she authored the book "On the Line" and later a children's picture book "The Adventures of Qai Qai," what will she do next? When she's not busy being superwoman, she just mom to her young daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr.

The Smiths

Will Smith, known as the rapper, songwriter, producer actor and singer who rapped his way through "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" to become one of the biggest movie stars in the United States, married successful actress, producer, director and author Jada Pinkett in 1997. They, along with their kids, Trey, Jaden and Willow, are successes in the entertainment world for acting, singing, and dancing. 

The Obamas

They are the first African-American "First Family" of the United States. Barack Obama served eight years as the 44th President of the United States of America. Before being elected President he was an attorney, then later he was elected to the Illinois state Senate, then on to the U.S. Senate. His wife, Michelle, also a lawyer served as First Lady, she's written several books and continues to be an influential figure. Sasha and Malia, their daughters, who were just 7 and 10 when they moved into the White House, are now all grown up. It will be interesting to watch what path they follow as they enter adulthood.

Fictional TV Families You Should Know

Even though these families are fictional, they captivated us just as though they were real. They've had a lasting impact on views and culture across the US and beyond. This is just a small sample of the many important and beloved Black Families we've welcomed into our homes through our TV sets over the years, I felt these ones were more notable, breaking ground and planting seeds for those to come. Looking back I have found that many of these shows had their critics on both sides of the isle, but no matter what they lacked, failed to do or the mistakes they made - what they did accomplished was was phenomenal at the time and deserves recognition, they widened the path for the many shows that followed down the road.

Interesting fact:  Quite a few of the people from the real families mentioned above were connected in some way with many of the shows listed below

Please Note: While these are all amazing shows to introduce your family to, they might not be appropriate for all ages and I recommend you watch them first or watch them together with your kids so you can discuss why some of the language, jokes or stereotypes included might not be considered ok today

Julia Baker and Corey

Julia (1968-1971), starring Diahann Carroll as Julia Baker was groundbreaking for it's time, it was the first series to feature a Black woman that wasn't a servant. The show followed the story of Julia, a young African-American mom and nurse who sadly lost her husband to the war in Vietnam while raising her young son Corey on her own. While the reviews were mixed at the time and the show had a short run, it did make its mark in history - it was also the first TV show to feature a Black middle class family, it was loved by many.  

Fred Sanford and Son

Sanford and Son (1972-1977) was the first primetime show with a mostly black cast since Amos 'n' Andy, this boundary pushing comedy exploring racial issues was created by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, the same team behind many popular TV shows at the time including "All in the Family." It was a British remake of the hit show "Steptoe and Son." Sanford and son was about a Black father and son living in the Los Angeles community of Watts, starring comedy pioneer, Redd Foxx as Fred Sanford, a cantankerous widowed junk man butting heads with everyone, including his son Lamont, his roommate and business partner who helped keep him in line. While on the surface Fred seem to be a mean old grump who didn't like anyone, in reality he was a sweetie with a heart of gold that would spend his last dollar to help someone in need no matter their race or religion and he love his son with all his heart - he reminds me of Archie Bunker.

There were several short lived spinoffs; "Grady" and "Sanford Arms" and one attempt to reboot the show with "Sanford."

Important Note:  Please be aware, especially if you watch with your children, a few episodes include the "N-word"

Fun fact: The theme song was composed by music legend Quincy Jones

The Evan's Family

Good Times (1974-1979) is a spinoff of the popular sitcom "Maude" which was itself a spinoff, both created by Norman Lear. The show centered around the close-knit African-American Evan's Family living in the projects of Chicago working hard and making the best of everything life threw their way. This TV show featured the first Black two-parent household, these proud parents often struggled to make ends meet while keeping their kids educated and safe. The show tackled real issues, struggles and hardships in a relevant way unlike any show at the time stretching boundaries with a sprinkle of comic relief.

Fun Fact: Janet Jackson, the youngest of the famed Jackson clan joined the show in 1977 as neighbor Penny who was later adopted by neighbor Willona Wood

The Jeffersons

The Jeffersons (1975-1985) was a big hit and just one of the many "All in the Family" spinoffs. Centered around the often obstinate patriarch George, played by Sherman Hemsley, his wife Louise "Wheezy" who kept him grounded with their grown son Lionel. The Jeffersons "moved on up" to a deluxe Manhattan penthouse apartment as his successful dry cleaning business took off landing them with the upper class. Before "The Jeffersons" Black families on TV were all working class or poor. Also included was their sassy back talking maid Florence and neighbors Helen and Tom Willis the first interracial couple on TV with their daughter Jenny who later married Lionel Jefferson. The show had a short lived spinoff following the adventures of Florence as a hotel maid called "Checking in"

Fun Facts: 

The Huxtables

The Cosby Show (1984-1992), was one of the most popular family sitcoms in the 1980s as well as one of the most popular shows of all time. Beyond color the Huxtables were a family most could relate to. The show starred comedian Bill Cosby as dad and doctor, Cliff Huxtable, Phylicia Rashad as mom and lawyer Claire Huxtable plus their 5 children. The show was based on Bill Cosby's stand-up comedy routine, inspiring many other shows based on popular stand-up routines to follow. The Huxtables were an upper-middle class African-American family, living in a brownstone in Brooklyn, NY. The Cosby Show defied the common Black stereotypes of the time and many of the family dilemmas along with the shows jokes were universal. This highly rated and well loved show even had a popular spinoff; "A Different World," centered around Black College students.

The Banks Family

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996) was the first TV show to portray a more aristocratic African-American family. The show was Cinderella style story centered around Will, played by rapper Will Smith, a streetwise, wise-cracking, poor kid from the hood in Philly. To keep him out of trouble his mom sent him to live with their uber wealthy relatives in Bel Air, CA; his Aunt Viv, a university professor, Uncle Phil a successful attorney and his cousins. This high rated, popular show touched on many real-world issues around class, race, drugs, and racial profiling in unique way.

The Johnsons

Black-ish (2014-2022) is a funny and at times serious family show about the Johnson's, a proud Black family lead by successful ad exec. and dad Dre (Andre) played by Anthony Anderson with his hospital doctor wife and mom Bow (short for Rainbow) played by Tracee Ellis Ross and their privileged kids living in their big house in a mostly white upper-middle-class suburban area in Sherman Oaks, CA . The show explores family relationships, workplace dynamics, kids at school, the challenges of a two working parent home, class, culture, race, generational differences pushing boundaries in ways unlike other shows before them. Additional tension is the result of Dre's parents who live with the family on and off throughout the series both separately and together. Dre and Bow had very different upbringings which comes out in the show with their often clashing perspectives on how things should be. Often the show follows the lead of current topics incorporating them into the show as teaching moments not only for the Johnson family, but for the audience. Dre is forever working to remind his kids if tge struggles facing many Black people now and in the past. 

Like many that came before this show also spawned some spinoffs, “Grown-ish” featuring the Johnson's oldest daughter Zoey navigating life on her own off at college and "Mixed-ish," traveling back in time to tell the story of mom, Rainbow and her life growing up with her hippy parents and younger siblings. 

The Lyons

Empire (2015-2020), a highly rated and powerful drama with a mostly Black cast featuring original music each episode. Starring Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon and Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon, the drama (and I mean "drama") centers around the founder and head of Empire, Lucious a successful rapper, and his ex-wife Cookie Lyon as they fight each other for power over their multi-million dollar Music company upon her return from prison. The good, bad and ugly of the Lyon's struggle for power in every episode which often including their grown children fighting for their place, some are also up and coming Hip-Hop stars. Pushing boundaries with dysfunction and controversy more than any night-time drama before it with secrets and lies, money and power, intrigue, crime, sex, drugs, sexuality, divas and rivalries. The Lyons overcame a lot, made a lot of mistakes along the way with their achievements and leave the audience asking for more.

The show like other before was not without its critics. Sadly some unforscene disruptions impacted the show towards the end, from controversy with one if it's major players to the world-wide shutdown that brought production of shows to a halt.

Note:  While an amazing show, this one is defitly for mature audiences, Rated: TV-14

Gillian Pridgen is the publisher of Macaroni KID Coral Springs and Macaroni KID Boca Raton, Fla.

This previously posted article has been edited and updated February 26, 2023 by Brenna Gutell, publisher of Macaroni KID Conejo Valley - Malibu - Calabasas