Ethel Waters was a pioneering singer, actress and entertainer that endured several hardships along with measurable successes. According to some historical accounts, Ms. Waters is the first Black woman nominated for an Emmy Award and the first to star on network television.
Born October 31, 1896 in Chester, Pennsylvania., Waters was born into poverty under unfortunate circumstances as her teenage mother was raped by an older man. Living from home to home, Waters and her mother struggled mightily. At age 13, she was married to an abusive husband but escaped his clutches at 14. Thinking that becoming a maid was the best she could do, she became a domestic.
At age 17, however, her fortunes changed. At the urging of friends at nightclub in Philadelphia, Waters took to the stage and impressed the owners so much that she earned a gig at Baltimore’s Lincoln Theater. As a tall, slender woman, she earned the nickname “Sweet Mama String-Bean.”
This led to her career on the Black vaudeville circuit, then later she moved to Harlem. Blues singers were a commodity during this high period of the Harlem Renaissance and Waters thrived.
Her professional singing career took off some years later, scoring her a 1925 international hit “Dinah” with Columbia Records. Later, she became known for putting voice to the 1933 song “Stormy Weather.” Both songs, now in the Grammy Hall Of Fame, are her renditions.
1939 was the dawn of television and Waters became the first Black person to appear on a network television show. NBC invited her to star in The Ethel Waters Show, bringing to life one of her Broadway plays, Mamba’s Daughters in a one-night experimental test run.
A decade later, she starred in her own series, Beulah, as a kind maid, a role she was not happy with. In 1962, she was nominated for an Emmy Award for a guest appearance on the program, Route 66.
Racism was a difficult hurdle for Waters and some say her experiences made her bitter.A car accident in Alabama was especially revealing, as she was treated poorly and left largely to die by a white medical staff at a mental institution. But a nurse recognized the singer and helped her get onto a train although Waters could not walk.
While in Macon, Ga., the body of a lynched child was placed in a theater where she was slated to perform. She sang at the boy’s funeral, choosing the song “Little Black Boy,” which angered white officials to the point she has to leave the town in secret.
Waters’ secular career came to a close when she joined evangelist Billy Graham’s Crusade and sang with them until her death from a stroke in 1977. Waters is the great-aunt of house/dance vocalist, Crystal Waters.