Ellen Holly, “One Life to Live ”Actress and First Black Person to Have Lead Role on Daytime TV, Dead at 92

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Holly advocated for Black representation in television over the course of her entire career and even landed her historic role on the soap opera after writing an op-ed titled, "How Black Do You Have to Be?"

<p>CLINT SPAULDING/Patrick McMullan </p> Ellen Holly at the Americans for the Arts National Arts Awards in October 2010

CLINT SPAULDING/Patrick McMullan

Ellen Holly at the Americans for the Arts National Arts Awards in October 2010

Ellen Holly, the trailblazing One Life to Live actress who became the first Black person to star on a soap opera, has died. She was 92.

In a statement shared with PEOPLE, her publicist Cheryl L. Duncan announced that the actress died in her sleep on Wednesday at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, New York.

Holly began her career on stages in New York City and Boston and made her broadway debut in Too Late the Phalarope in 1956. She went on to star in other Broadway productions such as Face of a HeroTiger Tiger Burning Bright and A Hand is on the Gate.

She also made appearances on television shows includingThe Big Story (1957), The Defenders (1963), Sam Benedict (1963), Dr. Kildare (1964) and The Doctors and the Nurses (1963 and 1964).

<p>ABC Photo Archives/Getty</p> Ellen Holly in 'One Life to Live'

ABC Photo Archives/Getty

Ellen Holly in 'One Life to Live'

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In 1968, Holly became a household name with her portrayal of Carla Benari on ABC's One Life to Live. Her soap opera debut was a historic one as Holly became the first Black actress to secure a longterm contract on a daytime soap.

She went on to play the role until 1980 and later reprised her character from 1983 to 1985.

Holly advocated for Black representation in television over the course of her entire career. In fact, the actress landed her historic role on One Life to Live when the soap's creator Agnes Nixon came across an op-ed she wrote for The New York Times titled  “How Black Do You Have to Be?” in 1968.

Nixon signed Holly for a one-year contract for $300 a week, and the actress took on the role of a White-passing woman who's race wasn't revealed until the end of her first season. In the show, a White doctor (Robert Milli) falls in love with Holly's character after he treats her for a nervous breakdown when she finds herself attracted to a Black intern (Peter De Anda).

Carla's "attempt to come to terms with her racial identity and her love triangle with two doctors," launched the viewership of the soap opera "into the stratosphere," according to Holly's obituary. As a result, other popular soaps like All My Children and General Hospital began adopting Black story lines in response to Carla's popularity, which helped ABC "dominate daytime for two decades.

Related: Kassie DePaiva to Appear as 'One Life to Live' Character Blair on 'General Hospital'

Later in her career, Holly spoke out about being "underpaid" and facing "mistreatment" from the show's executives alongside some of her Black castmates.

“I feel as if I was hired as a temporary gimmick to rocket-boost a payload of white stars into orbit. Basically, that’s what I was used as. And that’s how it worked out,” she explained in a 2012 interview with The Root.

Over the years, Holly wrote numerous pieces for the New York Times and published her autobiography One Life: The Autobiography of an African American Actress in 1996. She eventually retired from her career on television and became a librarian at White Plains Public Library after passing her civil service examination in the 1990s.

"She referred to her years there as some of the happiest of her life," her obit states. "Holly had many friends and was a well-loved member of her White Plains community... She is sorely missed and mightily celebrated."

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According to the obituary, there will be no funeral per Holly's wishes. Instead, her loved ones ask that expressions of sympathy be made in the form of donations to The Obama Presidential Center or St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

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