Until Sunday, just one black actor in 73 years had won an Academy Award in a lead role. Now there are three.
Halle Berry was named best actress for Monster's Ball and Denzel Washington took best actor for Training Day, joining Sidney Poitier in an emotional evening as the only blacks to win those top-tier awards.
By coincidence, Poitier was on hand to receive a lifetime achievement award. He had won his best-actor award for Lilies of the Field in 1963.
"Forty years I've been chasing Sidney. They finally give it to me, and they give it to him the same night," Washington said with a smile, raising his statuette in Poitier's direction.
Poitier stood and raised his in a toast to Washington.
Washington also had won the supporting-actor Oscar for 1989's Glory. Among the nominees he beat Sunday was Will Smith, for Ali. It was the first time two black actors competed against each other in the category.
Berry, the sixth black actress nominated for an Oscar in a lead role, was the first to win. She broke down in tears, saying she was accepting the award for every black actress who had preceded her, naming Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll among them.
Berry won a 1999 Emmy for the title role in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, the story of the first black actress nominated for a best-actress Oscar.
This is also "for every nameless, faceless woman of color who now have a chance because tonight a door has been opened," Berry said.
The ceremony's host, Whoopi Goldberg, who won a supporting-actress in for 1990's Ghost, acknowledged Berry's achievement.
"It has been a very large door and I'm glad she has kicked it down," said Goldberg.
It was only the second time that three black actors were in the running for lead-acting Oscars. The last time was 29 years ago, when Diana Ross was cited for Lady Sings the Blues and Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield were nominated for Sounder.
Before Poitier, black actors had often been relegated to roles as household help or dancing minstrels. The only previous winner had been Hattie McDaniel, who won best supporting actress for 1939's Gone With the Wind.
Poitier worked with some of the top producers and directors of the 1950s and 1960s.
"I accept this award in memory of all the African-American actors and actresses who went before me in the difficult years, on whose shoulders I was privileged to stand to see where I might go," Poitier said.
He also acknowledged a list of Hollywood producers and directors including Walter Mirisch, Joseph Mankiewicz, Richard Brooks, Ralph Nelson, Darryl Zanuck, Stanley Kramer and Norman Jewison.
"Those filmmakers persevered, speaking through their art to the best in all of us. And I benefited from their efforts. The industry benefited from their efforts. America benefited from their efforts. And in ways large and small the world has also benefited from their efforts," Poitier said.
Over the years, black actors have earned just 2.8 percent of Academy Award acting nominations, and only six have won, or 2.2 percent. Still, the Oscar track record shows signs of progress toward recognizing more blacks.
Four of black actors' six wins have come in the last 20 years. Before Sunday, the most recent had been supporting-actor Cuba Gooding Jr. for Jerry Maguire five years ago. And black actors have earned 31 nominations since 1970, compared with just eight in the preceding four decades.