Caribbean Roots: Esther Rolle of ‘Good Times’

Go Lean Commentary

The movement behind the book Go Lean … Caribbean recognizes the significance of the TV Show “Good Times”, 1974 – 1979.

cu-blog-esther-rolle-caribbean-roots-photo-3The show – the first episode titled Too Old Blues aired on February 8, 1974 – was a situation comedy about the African-American Evans Family; led by father James, mother Florida or “Flo”, sons J.J. and Michael and daughter Thelma. There were other supporting characters as well, like Willona Woods and her adopted daughter Penny. (Penny was the first acting role for music superstar Janet Jackson, the youngest sister of Michael Jackson of the Jackson 5 fame).

The show was produced by legendary TV producer Norman Lear and recorded on a “sound stage” in Hollywood, California. (There was no “live studio audience”).

What made “Good Times” notable was the ensemble cast of African American actors. But what kept viewers tuning in was the recognition of themselves in the faces on the screen. During the tough economic struggles of the seventies, many families struggled like the Evans family to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. While the subject matter was often bleak, the family had a way of making viewers forget their own troubles for at least 30 minutes.

Despite the canned laugh tracks, we fell in love with the characters. More importantly, we fell in love with the actors and actresses who brought the show to life. Forty years after the show ended, we are just as interested in the actors as we were when the show was on the air. Chances are good that another 40 years can pass and the show will still hold interest. The actors who brought the show to life may leave this world but their characters will live in our memories and on our television screens for decades to come. It is rare for a show to last longer than a few seasons; [this show lasted 6 seasons]. It is rarer still for a show to generate new fans decades after it went off the air. For whatever reason, “Good Times” accomplished that rare feat, and the actors who starred in the show will always have us wondering -where are they now? – Ad-supported Website

The focus of this show for the Go Lean movement is the composition of its cast, and the Caribbean roots of one of the main characters, Esther Rolle. The full cast is as follows:

BernNadette Stanis  Thelma Evans / … (133 episodes, 1974-1979)
Jimmie Walker  James ‘J.J.’ Evans, Jr. (133 episodes, 1974-1979)
Ralph Carter  Michael Evans (132 episodes, 1974-1979)
Ja’net DuBois  Willona Woods (124 episodes, 1974-1979)
Esther Rolle  Florida Evans (108 episodes, 1974-1979)
John Amos  James Evans, Sr. (59 episodes, 1974-1976)
Johnny Brown  Nathan Bookman (57 episodes, 1975-1979)

The  Go Lean book identifies that film, television, theater and the arts can greatly impact society; in addition to the entertainment value, there is also image and impression. People can override many false precepts with excellent deliveries and contributions of great role models. This show, “Good Times”, was frequently recognized for a positive Black image.

So this great American TV show also had a great Caribbean contributor, Bahamas-bred Esther Rolle. Wow!

Esther Rolle became the first woman to receive the NAACP Chairman’s Civil Rights Leadership Award.

See the encyclopedic details here:

Title: Esther Rolle as Florida Evans in “Good Times”


You may remember Esther Rolle for her portrayal as the loving but strict mother of three children in the hit television show “Good Times.” Rolle was born 10th in a family of 18 children whom all dreamed of becoming actors and actresses. She began her career as a dancer and played many of her earliest roles on stage. Fans of the hit television show “Maude” may remember her introduction as Findlay’s housekeeper, which is how the popular spin-off show “Good Times” was introduced.

As the show progressed, Rolle became unhappy with the writer’s creative direction and felt that Jimmie Walker’s character was frivolous. Fans of the show might remember her heartbreaking performance as Florida Evans when she received news that her husband had died in a tragic car accident. The series went on with Rolle as a single mother struggling to make ends meet without his income, insurance, or support.

After her contract had ended, Rolle quit the show, and moved on to win an Emmy for her performance as a maid in the 1979 television movie “Summer of My German Soldier.” Her successful return to the stage also included a role in “A Raisin in the Sun,” and “Down in the Delta,” which was directed by Maya Angelou. She gained notoriety once again for another Maya Angelou classic, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

Esther Rolle’s later works included film work in “Driving Miss Daisy,” in 1990, and “Rosewood” in 1997.  She was recognized as the first woman to receive the NAACP Civil Rights Leadership Award for raising the image of African Americans through her work on stage, television, and film. The same year, Rolle fell ill and was placed on kidney dialysis. She passed away, on November 17, 1998, shortly after her 78th birthday, from complications of diabetes. Rolle was married once but had no children.
Source: Retrieved December 30, 2016 from:


Early Life Biography:
Esther Rolle was born in Pompano Beach, Florida, to Bahamian immigrants Jonathan Rolle (1883–1953),[2] a farmer, and Elizabeth Iris Rolle (née Dames; 1893–1981).[3] Her parents were both born and raised in Nassau, New Providence, The Bahamas[4][5][6] and moved to Florida some time after their marriage. She was the tenth of 18 children (children who included siblings and fellow actresses Estelle Evans and Rosanna Carter).[7] Rolle graduated from Blanche Ely High School in Pompano Beach, Florida.[8] She initially studied at Spelman College in Atlanta, but she moved to New York City.[8] While in New York, she attended Hunter College. Rolle transferred to The New School and, finally, Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.”[9] For many years, Rolle worked in a traditional day job in New York City’s garment district.[10]
Source: Retrieved December 30, 2016 from:

Though she died over 18 years ago, on November 17, 1998, we still feel her impact. She proved to be an iconic TV character for 20th Century America; she fomented and fostered a great image not just for Americans or Bahamians or Caribbean people, but for the entire African-descended race, for their entertainers. For this reason, she received the first ever NAACP Civil Rights Leadership Award given to a woman.

Caribbean Girls rock!

As specified in a recent blog-commentary and in the Go Lean book, the American Civil Rights agency, the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP), was established in 1915 and immediately campaigned to elevate the status and image of Black people in America and beyond.  This “image” precept is also an important factor in the roadmap to elevate Caribbean society. So the Go Lean book details a plan to monitor defamations against the Caribbean image; this includes recognition and appreciation for Caribbean achievement as well. As  follows, this excerpt (Page 133) from Go Lean book highlights this “Image Quest”:

The majority of the Caribbean population descends from an African ancestry – a legacy of slavery from previous centuries. Despite the differences in nationality, culture and language, the image of the African Diaspora is all linked hand-in-hand. And thus, when Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali and Bob Marley impacted the world with their contributions, the reverberations were felt globally, not just in their homelands. It is hard for one segment of the black world to advance when other segments have a negative global image. This is exemplified with the election of Barack Obama as US President; his election was viewed as an ascent for the entire Black race.

Over 100 years ago, the NAACP came to understand the power and influence of the then new medium of film and added the mandate to their charter to confront the misuse of media to influence negative public attitudes toward race. … Today, the NAACP Hollywood Bureau continues to monitor the industry for offensive and defamatory images in film and television. It also sponsors the Image Awards Show to honor outstanding people of color in film, television, music, and literature, as well as those individuals or groups who promote social justice through their creative endeavors.

The book Go Lean…Caribbean serves as a roadmap for the introduction and implementation of the Caribbean Union Trade Federation (CU). This CU strives to advance Caribbean image and culture with these 3 prime directives:

  • Optimization of the economic engines in order to grow the regional economy.
  • Establishment of a security apparatus to protect the resultant economic engines.
  • Improve Caribbean governance.

This roadmap recognizes that a prerequisite for advancing society is a change in the Caribbean community ethos. Early in the book, the contributions that culture (music, film, theater, dance and artistic expressions) can make is pronounced as an ethos for the entire region to embrace, (opening Declaration of Interdependence – DOI – Pages 15) with these statements:

xxxii. Whereas the cultural arts and music of the region are germane to the quality of Caribbean life, and the international appreciation of Caribbean life, the Federation must implement the support systems to teach, encourage, incentivize, monetize and promote the related industries for arts and music in domestic and foreign markets. These endeavors will make the Caribbean a better place to live, work and play.

Esther Rolle – an American of Caribbean descent – was the embodiment of all of these above values. She impacted the image and culture of African Americans in her country, and thusly  impacted the Black image to the rest of the world. Like another Caribbean musical icon, Bob Marley, Esther Rolle set a pathway for success for other generations of talented, inspirational and influential artists to follow. Other artists of Caribbean heritage are sure to emerge and “impact the world”. We are preparing for it, as specified in the same DOI – Page 13:

xxi. Whereas the preparation of our labor force can foster opportunities and dictate economic progress for current and future generations, the Federation must ensure that educational and job training opportunities are fully optimized for all residents of all member-states, with no partiality towards any gender or ethnic group. The Federation must recognize and facilitate excellence in many different fields of endeavor, including sciences, languages, arts, music and sports. This responsibility should be executed without incurring the risks of further human flight, as has been the past history.

The CU represents the change that has come to the Caribbean. The people, institutions and governance of the region are all urged to “lean-in” to this roadmap for change. We know it is important to highlight the positive contributions of Caribbean people, even their descendants and legacies.

We salute those ones from our past, people like Esther Rolle whose parents left their Bahamas home for job opportunities in the agricultural fields of Florida. We know there are “new” Esther Rolle-types throughout Caribbean member-states, waiting to be fostered. We salute them as our future and pledge to create the local-domestic opportunities … without leaving home.

The following list details the community ethos, strategies, tactics, implementations and advocacies to foster future entertainers in the Caribbean:

Community Ethos – Ways to Foster Genius Page 27
Community Ethos – Promote Intellectual Property Page 29
Community Ethos – Ways to Promote Happiness Page 36
Community Ethos – Impact the Greater Good Page 37
Strategy – Caribbean Vision Page 45
Tactical – Separation of Powers – Patents & Copyrights Page 78
Tactical – Separation of Powers – Culture Administration Page 81
Implementation – Ways to Impact Social Media Page 111
Advocacy – Ways to Make the Caribbean Better Page 131
Advocacy – Ways to Impact Hollywood Page 203
Advocacy – Ways to Improve the Arts Page 230
Advocacy – Ways to Promote Music Page 231

Esther Rolle also impacted the world as a role model for Senior Citizens. In her last movie, Down in the Delta, she played the role of an aging wife-mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s Dementia. She played that role with dignity; she showcased to the world the challenge  and honor associated with families fulfilling their obligations to their aging parents and spouses. This movie was written and directed by famed African-American poet Maya Angelou; (also a familiar role model for the Caribbean). See the highlights of the movie here:

VIDEO – Down in the Delta TRAILER –

Published on Jul 19, 2013 – Sometimes The Best Place To Be…Is The Place You Least Expected. Down In The Delta brings together an outstanding cast of stars in an uplifting story of family, community and friendship! In a desperate attempt to change her life, Loretta a troubled single mother from a tough Chicago neighborhood – is sent to spend a summer at her family’s ancestral home in rural Mississippi. In The Delta, with the support and wisdom of her hardworking uncle Earl, Loretta finally begins to see a way to provide for her young children and reverse the downward slide of her life!

Esther Rolle also provided a fine example of retirement and estate planning:


When she died in 1998 – at age 78 – she left an estate valued in excess of $1.7 million including $200,000 in cash a $400,000 home, $1,072,000 in treasuries. In addition, she owned 1,000 shares of Bethdames Corporation, several Mutual Funds, and 2% interest in El Toro (Restaurants), Ltd.. – Source:

Esther Rolle came, saw and conquered! The same was said of Sammy Davis Jr. in the previous blog. See an interview in the Appendix below between Davis and Rolle. They both fit the definition of role models – as defined here by Booker T Washington – where they overcame obstacles and made an impact to benefit more than just themselves.

“I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has had to overcome while trying to succeed.”[B].

Previously, this blog-commentary identified other role models in these obituary submissions: E. R. Braithwaite, Author of ‘To Sir, With Love’ – RIP Role Model and Caribbean Roots of Sammy Davis, Jr. Remembering Marcus Garvey: A Role Model; Still Relevant Today Frederick Douglass: Role Model for a Single Cause Dr. Mobley – Role Model as a BusinessSchool Dean Caribbean Role Model – Oscar De La Renta – RIP Role Models in Contrast: Booker T Washington -vs- W.E.B. Du Bois Role Model and Humanities Advocate – Maya Angelou – R.I.P. Caribbean Musical Icon and Role Model: Bob Marley

The world is a better place because of Esther Rolle. Her contribution were on the stage and the screen; as an actress she was known for her dramatic roles and stage presence; but she had great “comedic chops” as well. Her days were truly “Good Times”, as her TV show portrayed.

She died 18 years ago; that’s a long time as celebrities die every year – 2016 has been an especially bad year; see list here – and yet we are remembering this one from 1998; this is because of her Caribbean roots. She helped to elevate the Caribbean image; to reinforce the message that we are just as good as anyone else; or maybe even better with our diverse passions. We carry on without her but we are better off for her role model; and forever impacted by her legacy. We urged all Caribbean stakeholders to lean-in to the Go Lean … Caribbean roadmap and the fine role model-example of Esther Rolle. 🙂

Download the book Go Lean … Caribbean – now!


Appendix VIDEO – Sammy Davis Jr. Interviews Esther Rolle –

Uploaded November 4, 2010 – Clip from the 1970’s Variety-Talk Show: “Sammy & Company”

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