Black History Timeline: 1980–1989

Jesse L. Jackson
Jesse L. Jackson.

The LIFE Images Collection / Getty Images

The 1980s saw important firsts for Black people recognized for their excellence, in the diverse fields of politics, science, literature, entertainment, and sports.

1980

Sexual Health Clinic For Gay Men Opens In San Francisco
Willie Brown. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

January: American entrepreneur Robert L. Johnson (born 1946) launches Black Entertainment Television. Johnson begins the station by broadcasting mainly old films, but he takes advantage of the fact that there are few Black performers on MTV, a music television station that played music videos at the time. "Johnson formed relationships with record labels to promote on BET videos by rhythm and blues and hip-hop artists," according to Reference for Business. Johnson steadily grows BET and eventually sells the entertainment firm to Viacom in 2000 for $2.3 billion, earning $1.4 billion in stock for himself for his 63 percent stake in BET.

May 17–20: A riot erupts in Liberty City, Florida, after police officers are acquitted of the murder of an unarmed Black man. The "Miami Riot" lasted 24 hours and an estimated 15 people are killed. The riot is considered the worst in U.S. history since the Detroit Riots of 1967.

December 2: U.S. politician Willie Lewis Brown, Jr. (born 1934) is selected by the California Assembly to become the Speaker of the state legislature. Brown is the first Black person to hold this position. He serves in this capacity for 15 years and in 1995 is elected as mayor of San Francisco. He later becomes a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Novelist Toni Cade Bambara’s (1939–1995) collection of short stories, "The Salt Eaters" wins the American Book Award. The Atlanta writer, teacher, and activist devotes "her work to the belief that the artist's job is determined always by the community that she serves," notes the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, a program operated by the University of Georgia Libraries that honors "Georgia writers, past and present, whose work reflects the character of the state—its land and people."

1982 

Michael Jackson Thriller
Courtesy Epic

A national campaign against environmental racism is launched when Reverend Benjamin Chavis (b. 1948) and his congregation block a toxic waste dump in North Carolina. Chavis later spearheads a report called "Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites," where he writes in the introduction:

"We believe that this report is of utmost importance, not only to racial and ethnic communities, but also to the nation as a whole. It is the first national report to comprehensively document the presence of hazardious wastes in racial and ethnic communities throughout the United States."

September 27: Journalist Bryant Gumbel (b. 1948) becomes the first Black person to be an anchor on a major network when he joins the "Today" show, holding the position for 15 years. Gumbel anchors the network's primetime 1988 Summer Olympics coverage in Seoul, South Korea, and its 1992 presidential election coverage. The push to refocus "Today" on news and public affairs helps the show regain first place in the ratings for its time slot by late 1995.

November 30: Recording artist Michael Jackson (1958–2009) releases "Thriller," which becomes the bestselling album in music history. In addition to the title track, the album includes popular singles “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'." "Thriller" sells over 104 million copies as of December 2020, including 65 million in the United States.

1983

Alice Walker, 2005
Alice Walker at the opening of Broadway version of "The Color Purple" in 2005. Sylvain Gaboury / FilmMagic / Getty Images

April 18: The novel "The Color Purple," written by poet and activist Alice Walker (b. 1944), wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Walker, who writes more than 20 other books and poetry collections, is also known for recovering the work of Zora Neale Hurston and for her work against female circumcision.

April 29: U.S. politician Harold Washington (1922–1987) is elected the 51st mayor of Chicago, becoming the first Black person to hold the position. Washington previously served in the Illinois Legislature both as a state representative (1965–1977) and a state senator (1977–1981). After serving in the U.S. Congress for two years (1981–1983) he wins the mayor's post in 1983 and is reelected in 1987, but dies of a heart attack a year later.

August 30: Guion S. Bluford, Jr. (b. 1942) becomes the first African American astronaut to make a space flight. Bluford—who goes by the nickname "Guy"—often tells people he didn't join NASA just to become the first Black man to fly to orbit, but to be the best aerospace engineer he could be.

September. 17: Singer-actress Vanessa Williams (b. 1963) is the first Black person to be crowned Miss America. Williams goes on to enjoy extremely successful music and acting careers. She releases several successful albums over the course of more than two decades from 1988 to 2009, including the hit single "Save the Best for Last," which reaches No. 1 in the U.S. and several other countries in 1992. She also appears or stars in more than 20 theatrical films and dozens of television shows.

November. 3: Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday becomes a federal holiday when Ronald Reagan signs the bill. As a result, Americans begin commemorating the civil rights leader's birthday on the third Monday in January. Upon establishing the holiday, Reagan tells the nation:

"This year marks the first observance of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a national holiday. It is a time for rejoicing and reflecting. We rejoice because, in his short life, Dr. King, by his preaching, his example, and his leadership, helped to move us closer to the ideals on which America was founded."

Newspaper publisher and editor Robert C. Maynard (1937–1993) becomes the first Black person to own a major daily newspaper when he owns the majority of stock in the Oakland Tribune. "He is widely recognized for turning around the then-struggling newspaper and transforming it into a 1990 Pulitzer Prize-winning journal," explains the website Black History in America.

1984

carl lewis raising his arm after winning a race at the 1984 olympics

Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

January 2: Pennsylvania politician W. Wilson Goode (b. 1938) becomes the first Black mayor of Philadelphia, serving for two terms. He goes on to serve for seven years as deputy assistant secretary of education during the administration of President Bill Clinton before founding the Amachi Program, a national faith-based mentoring model for children of incarcerated parents, at Eastern University in Pennsylvania.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson (b. 1941) runs for president in the Democratic primary, the second Black person to run—the first was Shirley Chisholm (1924–2005). During the primary, Jackson wins one-fourth of the votes and one-eighth of the convention delegates before losing the nomination to Walter Mondale (b. 1928).

August: Carl Lewis (b. 1961) wins four gold medals at the 1984 Olympics. His wins match the record set by Jesse Owens (1913–1980). Lewis tells ESPN that Owens—whom he had met briefly two or three times—inspired his efforts. "He was a huge, huge influence in my life," Lewis said.

September 20: "The Cosby Show" makes its debut on NBC. It will become the most successful series featuring a Black cast in television history.

Def Jam Recordings is established by Russell Simmons (b. 1957). The label goes on to represent dozens of successful hip hop and other music artists, including the Beastie Boys, Kanye West, LL Cool J, and Run DMC.

1985

Gwendolyn Brooks smiling while working at a typewriter

Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

May 13: Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode orders Philadelphia law enforcement agents to bomb the headquarters of MOVE, a Black liberation group founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by John Africa (born Vincent Leaphart) in 1972. The bombing leaves 250 people homeless and 11 dead. Years later, Goode reflects on the bombing, telling the Philadelphia Tribune in 2015: “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it, and I grieve deeply for the lives lost and the houses destroyed.”

October: Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000) becomes the first Black person to be named U.S. Poet Laureate. Brooks, also the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize (in 1950 for "Annie Allen"), produces work that describes ordinary Black people in bold, innovative, beautiful verse, often drawing on the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago where she lives most of her life.

1986

Mike Tyson
Alexander Hassenstein / Bongarts / Getty Images

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s national holiday is celebrated across the United States.

Jan 28: Six crew members die when the Challenger space shuttle explodes after it launches from the Kennedy Space Center. One of the crew members is African American astronaut Dr. Ronald McNair (1950–1986). Addressing the nation that night from the Oval Office, President Reagan tells the American people: "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."

March 6: Mike Tyson (b. 1966) becomes the youngest heavyweight champion in the world when he defeats Trevor Berbick (b. 1954). Tyson goes on—through the late part of the decade—to post an undefeated record of 37 wins, including 33 by knockout. Julius Francis, a knockout victim who lasts just two rounds with Tyson, tells The Guardian newspaper what it is like to fight the champ: "He was hitting me with all sorts of body and head shots; he even lifted me off the ground with some of them and I weighed 17 stone! It was relentless."

Sept. 8: The "Oprah Winfrey Show" (1986–2011) becomes a nationally syndicated talk show. At its peak, the show draws up to 20 million viewers daily focusing on topics ranging from how to marry the right person, to popular soap operas, weight loss, emotional issues, and even "Islam 101" (for a show that aired after 9-11).

1987

James Baldwin, noted Black American writer, made significant contributions to sociology.
James Baldwin poses while at home in Saint Paul de Vence, France, in September 1985. Ulf Andersen / Getty Images

Rita Dove (b. 1952) wins the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Her books of poetry include "Collected Poems 1974-2004," which wins both the 2017 NAACP Image Award and the 2017 Library of Virginia Award, and is a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award; ''On the Bus With Rosa Parks," which is named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and "Thomas and Beulah," for which she wins the Pulitzer. In 2018, she is appointed poetry editor for The New York Times.

Reginald Lewis (1942–1993) becomes the first Black CEO of a billion-dollar corporation when he orchestrates the buyout of Beatrice Foods. "Being the 1st of anything requires a certain mindset. Reginald Lewis had it," President Barak Obama says of the businessman.

January 3: American singer and activist Aretha Franklin (1942–2018) becomes the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She goes on to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented to her in 2005 by President George W. Bush, and to later sing "America" at the inauguration of President Obama in 2009.

January 30: Neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson (b. 1951) leads a team of 70 surgeons at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in a 22-hour operation separating conjoined twins. Carson would go on to run for president as a Republican and served four years as secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the administration of President Donald Trump.

Anthropologist Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole (b. 1936) becomes the first Black woman to preside over Spelman College.

December 1: Novelist and essayist James Baldwin dies from stomach cancer. Baldwin's plays, essays, novels, poetry, and nonfiction books are considered important for their intellectual contributions to theorizing and critiquing racism, sexuality, and inequality.

1988

Jesse Jackson Speaking at Rally
Corbis / Getty Images

Jesse Jackson seeks the Democrat Party's presidential nomination for the second time. Jackson receives 1,218 delegate votes but loses the nomination to Michael Dukakis. Though unsuccessful, Jackson's two presidential campaigns—this year and in 1984—lay the groundwork for Obama to become president two decades later.

The first Ph.D. in African American Studies is offered by Temple University.

Nov. 6: Bill Cosby donates $20 million to Spelman College. Cosby’s gift is the largest ever made by a Black person to a college or university. Dr. Cole was officially inaugurated as Spelman's president on this day. Cosby gave the donation during her inauguration ceremony.

1989

Colin Powell
Brooks Kraft / CORBIS / Getty Images

February 11: Ronald H. Brown (1941–1996) becomes the first Black person to head one of the two major political parties when he is elected chair of the Democratic National Committee. Brown later goes on to be the first Black person to serve as U.S. Secretary of Commerce during the administration of President Bill Clinton.

April 1: Former player and broadcaster Bill White (b. 1934) becomes the first Black person to be chosen to head Major League Baseball’s National League.

September 24: Barbara C. Harris (b. 1930) becomes the first woman bishop in the Anglican Episcopal Church. "Her rise to bishop (breaks) centuries of precedent for tens of millions of Christians in the Anglican Communion, which has members in more than 165 countries," notes PBS.org.

October 1: Retired four-star general Colin Powell (b. 1937) is the first Black person to be named chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff. Previously, Powell was also the first Black person to serve as a national security advisor during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

October 3: Retired player Art Shell is the first Black person to be hired to be the head coach of a National Football League team when he leads the Oakland Raiders; he is also inducted into the Hall of Fame. "Shell's historic, brilliant odyssey...would open the door for many more African-American head coaches to come," Mike Freeman later writes on the sports website Bleacher Report. "A legion of (Black NFL head coaches) owe so much to Shell, from Denny Green to Tony Dungy to Marvin Lewis to Herm Edwards to Mike Tomlin."

November: L. Douglas Wilder (b. 1931) is elected governor of Virginia, making him the first Black person to win the popular vote for the governorship.

November 7: David Dinkins (1927–2020) and Norman Rice (b. 1943) are both elected mayors of New York City and Seattle, respectively, and are the first Black people to hold such positions. "I stand before you today as the elected leader of the greatest city of a great nation, to which my ancestors were brought, chained and whipped in the hold of a slave ship," Dinkens tells a crowd during his inaugural speech on Jan. 1, 1990.

November 22: Frederick Drew Gregory (b. 1941) is the first Black person to command a space shuttle by leading the Discovery. He will go on to command the space shuttle Atlantis in 1991 and be appointed associate administrator for NASA's Office of Safety and Mission Quality in 1992. 

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Lewis, Femi. "Black History Timeline: 1980–1989." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1980-1989-45446. Lewis, Femi. (2021, September 8). Black History Timeline: 1980–1989. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1980-1989-45446 Lewis, Femi. "Black History Timeline: 1980–1989." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1980-1989-45446 (accessed September 23, 2021).