All That’s Black: Ethel Waters

Ethel Waters, Actor, director, producer, singer:

Photo Credit: Travelanche

“The white audiences thought I was white, my features being what they are, and at every performance I’d have to take off my gloves to prove I was a spade.”

TW// Sexual Assault, Domestic Abuse

Ethel Waters was born in 1896, a result of her mother’s (Louise Anderson) rape by John Waters, a family friend and pianist when her mother was in her late teens. Waters played no role in raising Ethel, dying in 1901. Soon after Ethel was born, her mother married Norman Howard, a railroad worker.

Ethel herself was raised in poverty by her grandmother and never lived in one place for longer than 15 months. Married at 13, Ethel soon left the marriage due to her husband’s abuse, and moved to Philadelphia where she worked as a hotel maid.

On her 17th birthday, Ethel was persuaded to attend a costume party and sang two songs. Those songs were her first step into fame. She impressed the audience so much she was offered a job at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore and began a tour on the Black vaudeville circuit. Waters sang for a living for decades, until-in 1933-she got a role in an all-Black satire film “Rufus Jones for President,” featuring Sammy Davis, Jr. Her success was so great that she became the first Black woman to integrate Broadway.

In 1939, Ethel became the first African-American to star in her own TV show, before Nat King Cole in 1956.

The Ethel Waters Show, a 15-minute variety special-premiered on NBC on June 14th. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the film Pinky (1949) under the direction of Elia Kazan. In 1950, she won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for her performance opposite Julie Harris in the play The Member of the Wedding. Waters and Harris repeated their roles in the 1952 film version.

In 1950, Waters was the first African American actress to star in a television series, Beulah, which aired on ABC television from 1950 through 1952. In 1961, she appeared in episode 33 of Route 66, “Goodnight Sweet Blues,” guest-starring as a dying woman searching for her blues band. For that performance, she received a 1962 Primetime Emmy Award nomination as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Mini-Series or a Movie. (At the time, this category included guest performances on regular series.)

This was a watershed event in two ways: Waters was the first Black actor to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for a dramatic performance, and she was the first Black woman ever nominated for any Primetime Emmy Award. Waters died on September 1, 1977, aged 80, from uterine cancer, kidney failure, and other ailments, in Chatsworth, California.

By Aprille’ Morris & Emily Burke

Edited By Keshav Kant

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