'Movin' on up': 'The Jeffersons' and the rise and fall of the black sitcom

The golden age of black television — the late 1960s to 1970s — introduced us to something more than just seeing ourselves on television. It provided the outlet for black families and communities to become comfortable with seeing various representations of ourselves on the major networks, in the evenings when everyone was at home and watching television. From the single working mom that was Julia, to the South Central L.A. junk yard of Sanford & Son, to the Chicago projects in Good Times, and then the nouveaux riche family in The Jeffersons, the prime-time sitcom shows were a reflection of the hopes we had for ourselves – hopes of seeing us succeed.

Suddenly, the concept of ‘moving on up’ was not just a theme song, it was our expectation as a society, and as a country. The idea of being upwardly mobile was accepted quickly by black audiences, and television would begin to reflect the change in mainstream perception of black American class and wealth as well. The Jeffersons allowed for the world to start seeing more of us in places like the Brooklyn brownstone of The Cosby Show and later, the mansion in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. No longer could the black character in a sitcom serve solely as comedic relief. There were new issues to be introduced, and wealth, class and upward mobility could not be left out of the conversation.

The character of George Jefferson, and the late actor who played him, Sherman Hemsley, represented a lot of firsts. He was the first successful black millionaire on television, though the show was adamant in maintaining the humble aspects of his family-oriented and stubborn persona.

According to the Archive of American Television, The Jeffersons became one of only three mainstream shows by the 1970s to highlight blacks in leading roles, following the cancellation of slapstick duo Amos and Andy in 1953. It was the first show to feature an interracial couple, and became the longest running black sitcom on mainstream television, lasting 11 seasons before its cancellation in 1985.

In the wake of its success, by the 1980s we had been introduced to The Cosby Show, Diff’rent Strokes, Webster, 227 and plenty of other shows that chronicled the black American experience.

But just as it seemed that mainstream American television had openly embraced these programs (suddenly there were over 50 shows scattered around television featuring black leads and ensemble casts), by the 1990s the downfall happened just as quickly. Shows like The Cosby Show, which single-handedly revived the American sitcom, were ousted from network television and replaced with shows like Friends and Seinfeld. And mainstream America wanted more of those types of shows following their evening news programs. All of the networks – NBC, ABC, and CBS had largely dropped their black sitcoms by the year 2000.