Moments after she became the first black woman to win the Emmy for lead actress in a drama, Viola Davis took the stage at Microsoft Theater very much aware of the history she just made.
“‘In my mind, I see a line, and over that line I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line,’” said Davis, her voice trembling with emotion. “‘But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.’ That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something. The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
This year, the roles began to materialize. Davis, who plays a ruthless law professor in the ABC whodunit “How to Get Away With Murder,” was one of three black women to win Emmys on Sunday. Uzo Aduba took the supporting actress drama Emmy for her portrayal of Crazy Eyes in Netflix’s prison dramedy “Orange Is the New Black.” And Regina King won the Emmy for supporting actress in a limited series or movie for “American Crime.”
The three wins matched a previous mark from 1991 when Lynn Whitfield, Madge Sinclair and Ruby Dee won acting Emmys.
Davis was one of two black women nominated for lead drama actress this year. Joining her in the category was Taraji P. Henson, who played the outrageous and outspoken Cookie Lyon on Fox’s music drama “Empire.” During Davis’ acceptance speech, the cameras caught a visibly moved Henson standing, applauding her victory.
Davis returned the favor with her words, name-checking Henson and other black actresses — Halle Berry, Nicole Beharie, Kerry Washington, Meagan Good and Gabrielle Union — for “taking us over that line.”
She also thanked ABC President Paul Lee, Disney-ABC President Ben Sherwood and “Murder” producers Shonda Rhimes and Peter Norwalk, “people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black.”
Backstage, Davis revealed what she and Henson said to each other before the award was presented.
“We whispered to each other, ‘Whoever gets it, it’s great, it’s wonderful. And I love you,’” Davis said.
The two-time Oscar nominee also said she was unaware that “everyone wanted me to win it so badly.”
“I keep saying this same quote over and over: ‘Stories never end. My story doesn’t end here,’” Davis said. “I just think there is so much work that needs to be done in so many areas. You guys have to realize I have been in this business 35 years and 27 years professionally.... I’m just excited to be part of the conversation, you know? I’ve seen the unemployment line a lot.”
The historic night comes months after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences caught flak for not nominating one person of color in its four acting categories, spawning a social media hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite.
Before this year, there had been only two black actresses nominated for a lead drama actress Emmy: Debbie Allen in 1982 for “Fame” and Washington, nominated in 2013 and 2014 for “Scandal.”
Isabel Sanford is the only black actress to win on the lead comedy side, taking the Emmy for “The Jeffersons” in 1981. Phylicia Rashad was nominated twice for “The Cosby Show.”
Now, Davis has her name in the history book. As to how she planned to celebrate, the 50-year-old actress offered an emphatic answer: Dessert.
Times staff writer Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this report.