Ethel Waters (1896 – 1977) was an American singer and actress. Ethel Waters first entered the entertainment business in the 1920s as a blues singer but made history for her television work. She was the first African-American to star in their own TV show in 1939, The Ethel Waters Show.
Waters was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, she had a very difficult and tragic childhood. Despite a mountain of early hardship, her voice had immense heart and spirit. She found her talent for entertaining audiences on her 17th birthday when she attended a costume party at a nightclub on Juniper Street. She was persuaded to sing two songs and impressed the audience so much that she was offered professional work at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore.
After her start in Baltimore, Waters toured on the black vaudeville circuit then toured with a traveling carnival for a short time. She then headed south to Atlanta, where she worked in the same club as Bessie Smith. In 1919, Waters moved to Harlem and became a performer in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. In the late 20s, she became the first black woman to integrate Broadway’s theater and eventually she became the highest-paid performer on Broadway.
She became hugely popular for her stirring performances and musical recordings with 25 hit records between 1925 – 1938. Waters was the first singer to perform the standard Stormy Weather which she debuted in 1933 at The Cotton Club in Harlem.
In 1939 Waters blazed a new trail when she became the first African-American to star in her own television show, this was 17 years before Nat King Cole appeared in 1956. Waters career included movie roles and in 1949 she became the second African American to be nominated for an Academy Award for her roll in “Pinky”. In 1950, Waters was the first African-American actress to star in a television series, Beulah. It was the first nationally broadcast weekly television series starring an African-American in the leading role. In 1962 Waters became the first African-American woman to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for her roll in Route 66.
Today we honor this amazing entertainer that paved the way for future African-American women on stage, in film, and on television. Thank you, Ethel Waters, you are an inspiration.
“We are all gifted. That is our inheritance.”