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Portrait of singer Ethel Waters, circa 1950. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Happy Black History Month! This is the ninth blog of a series of blogs called “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know”. This series will be a collection of my research into little-known Black Americans who have made history in one way or another (or multiple ways!).

The focus of today’s blog is Ethel Waters, a famous blues singer and the first Black person to be nominated for an Emmy as well as star in their own television show.

This is her story.

Growing Up in Poverty

Ethel Waters was born on Halloween in 1896 in Chester, Pennsylvania. Her 13-year-old mother at the time gave birth to her and then married a railroad worker. Waters grew up in poverty cared for by her grandmother, aunts, and uncles. Like her mother, she married for the first time by the age of 13 while still attending covenant school. Her first partner soon became abusive, so she fled to work as a hotel maid in Philadelphia.

Discovered as a Singer

Waters got discovered on her 17th birthday. For her Halloween birthday, she attended a costume party at a nightclub. While there, she sang two songs for the audience and everyone became so enraptured that the talent scout for the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore offered her a job. Giving herself the nickname “Sweet Mama Stringbean”, Waters earned $10 a week singing, but her managers slighted her out of tips. She became the first woman to sing W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”.

Broadway Career

After spending a brief time with a traveling carnival, Waters moved to Harlem, becoming a part of the Harlem Renaissance. It was in Harlem that she began a career in acting through Broadway. Over the next decade, she starred in many Broadway performances including Africana, Blackbird, Rhapsody in Black, and As Thousands Cheer. During this time, she also sang with blues icons Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. According to encyclopedia.com, she became one of the highest-paid performers of the time.

Film Career

In 1929, Waters starred in On With the Show. After that, she joined the all-Black cast of satire Rufus Jones For President in 1933. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Waters acted in the following movies: Check and Double Check, Gift of the Gab, Tales of Manhattan, Cairo, Cabin in the Sky, Stage Door Canteen, Pinky, Member of the Wedding, and The Sound and the Fury. For her role in Pinky (1949), she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Making TV History

1939 marked the year that Waters became the first Black person to star in their own television show. The Ethel Waters Show premiered as a special on NBC in June 1939. She also starred as the main character in tv show Beulah for two years until she quit, saying the portrayal of Black people on the show was degrading. For her role in “Route 66”, Waters was nominated for an Emmy, becoming the first Black person to be nominated for the accolade. Up until she passed of cancer in 1977, she sang with the Billy Graham Crusade. Read more about Ethel Waters here, here, or here.

Read another article from the “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know” blog series here.