Black HERstory: Ethel Waters

Ethel Waters (b. October 31, 1896 – d. September 1, 1977)

Today’s feature is on vocalist and actress Ethel Waters. The Philadelphia native was born on All Hallow’s Eve, as a result of her mother being raped at the age of 13.

Waters grew up in a “violent, impoverished home. She never lived in the same place for more than 15 months.” She said of her difficult childhood:

“I never was a child. I never was coddled, or liked, or understood by my family.”

“Waters married at the age of 13, but soon left her abusive husband and became a maid in a Philadelphia hotel working for US$4.75 per week. On Halloween night in 1913, she attended a party in costume 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, Maryland.”

Waters eventually found her way to Atlanta, Georgia where she worked in the same club with the famed Bessie Smith. She then relocated to Harlem and became part of the Harlem Renaissance around 1919. “In 1921 Waters became the fifth black woman to make a record (recording for the tiny Cardinal Records label).”

“During the 1920s, Waters performed and was recorded with the ensembles of Will Marion Cook and Lovie Austin. As her career continued, she evolved toward being a blues and Broadway singer, performing with artists such as Duke Ellington.”

In time she became “the highest paid performer on Broadway, but she was starting to age.”

“She began to work with Fletcher Henderson again in the late 1940s. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in 1949 for the film Pinky.” But despite these successes her career continued to fade. “She lost tens of thousands in jewelry and cash in a robbery, and the IRS hounded her. Her health suffered, and she worked only sporadically in following years.”

Here she is singing “His Eye is on the Sparrow” in the film Member of the Wedding:

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