04/01/1998 AT 12:00 AM EST
This year's 14th annual Essence Awards saluting African Americans who exemplify courage and tenacity drew such heavy hitters from Hollywood and Washington as Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, reports PEOPLE. Among those who received awards at the New York event on Friday were tennis champs Venus and Serena Williams. The sisters were moved to tears by the tribute. "We want to thank Arthur Ashe," said Serena. "We have worked very hard for many years, and this means everything to us." Among the celebrity presenters, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs caused quite a splash. Sharing the podium with "The View" hostess Star Jones, the rap mogul was dressed in an off-white suit and was all smiles as the audience gave him loud round of applause as he entered. "I thank God that I am here tonight, and I am grateful," said Combs. "I am grateful. I want to give a warm show of support for my family, my friends and my fans."