Meet Esther Rolle, the first woman to receive NAACP’s civil rights award

Michael Eli Dokosi Feb 28, 2020 at 04:00pm

February 28, 2020 at 04:00 pm | Faces of Black Excellence

Michael Eli Dokosi

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

February 28, 2020 at 04:00 pm | Faces of Black Excellence

Esther Rolle via getTV/Facebook

Esther Rolle gained fame as the feisty maid Florida Evans in the 1970s hit sitcom “Maude” and its spinoff series “Good Times.

She is also loved for roles in TV movie “Summer of My German Soldier,” the Academy Award-winning film “Driving Miss Daisy” and the play “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Rolle was born in Pompano Beach, Fla., to her Caribbean farming immigrants, the 10th of 18 children.

In 1990, she became the first woman to receive the NAACP Chairman’s Civil Rights Leadership Award, for helping raise the image of blacks through her work on stage, television and in the movies.

Although primarily an actress, she was also a longtime crusader against black stereotypes in Hollywood.

Image result for Esther Rolle
via Wikimedia Commons

In “Good Times,” her “Maude” character was spun off into a sitcom about a family struggling to make ends meet in inner-city Chicago, where she was an iron-willed matriarch as well as a domestic and when CBS planned a “Maude” spinoff in which she was to play a single mother; Rolle demanded that a father lead her television family. That part went to John Amos.

“I told them I couldn’t compound the lie that black fathers don’t care about their children,” she said. “I was proud of the family life I was able to introduce to television.”

She was so concerned about black stereotype characterization that she left “Good Times” after three seasons because she felt that the clownish character played by Jimmie (J.J.) Walker was a poor example to black youth.

Rolle won an Emmy for her work in “German Soldier.” She also featured in “Rosewood” and “Down in the Delta.”

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PBS aired A Raisin in the Sun starring Danny Glover and Esther Rolle.

The Yale University product with a gravelly voice first important work came with the Negro Ensemble Company and over the years attracted the eye of audiences with her theater plays including “The Blacks,” “Blues for Mister Charlie,” “The Amen Corner,” “A Raisin in the Sun” and “A Member of the Wedding.”

Her work in Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1979) and her film work in Driving Miss Daisy (1990) and Rosewood (1997) all helped give her critical acclaim.

Afflicted with diabetes, Rolle’s health failed in the 1990s and toward the end of her life she was on kidney dialysis. The actress, who was divorced and had no children, died at Brotman Memorial Hospital in Culver City nine days after her 78th birthday on November 17, 1998.

She left behind two sisters and a brother. She had an estate worth around $1.7 million.

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