By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
Far before, Nat King Cole in 1956, Carol Burnett in 1967 or Oprah in 1986, barrier breaking performer Ethel Waters became the first Black person in history to have and star in her own television show on June 14, 1939. Waters’ talent as a singer and actress stormed the theatre, television, and recording world, opening the, still very racially biased, floodgates of the entertainment industry for Black Americans.
Let’s be clear, this reporter is a huge Waters fan, has done research papers on her and has goals to one day open a performing arts school in her name, in part, because of personal bias and feeling she did not receive her flowers as she should have. However, sticking to the facts, the reality that Waters, a Black woman in the early days of NBC was the first Black person to star in her own television show, self titled at that, is a reason to celebrate this barrier breaking artist alone. Further, when digging into the life of the star, it becomes clear that Waters’ avant-garde approach to the arts and life is what made her the groundbreaking artist she became and why she should continue to be lauded to this day.
Waters’ life wasn’t easy. Born on Oct. 31, 1896, Waters’ birth was the result of her 13-year-old mother’s rape. She grew up with her maternal grandmother, aunts and uncle and never lived in the same place for long.
“We never had a bathtub. Mom would bathe me in the wooden or tin wash tub in the kitchen, or in a big lard can,” said Waters, who wrote about growing up in poverty in her best-selling autobiography His Eye is on the Sparrow (1951).
By 13, she was married, and by her mid-to late teens, after an abusive relationship, she was single and working as a maid at a hotel in Philadelphia.
However, Waters’ 17th birthday would change her life forever. The Halloween baby decided to celebrate at a costume party and people encouraged her to perform on stage. She obliged, and the statuesque woman standing a little less than 5 foot 10 inches, was discovered and garnered a gig working at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore.
She then took to the vaudeville and eventually carnival circuits. It was on her tours where she first began breaking barriers as the first woman to perform the song “St. Louis Blues,” by W.C. Handy, according to the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative (AWHI).
After touring, Waters moved to New York and became a buzzing voice in the Harlem Renaissance, notably beloved and supported among the LGBTQ+ community of that era.
Further, though she was never known to speak publicly about it and married three times, according to the Smithsonian’s AWHI, Waters was a member of LGBTQ+ community, having at one point lived with her romantic and performance partner, dancer Ethel Williams. They were called the “The Two Ethels.” Waters worked to keep her relationship with Williams a secret according to a biography about her life by Stephen Bourne, published in 2007. However, Waters is often associated in conversations, documentaries and articles about Blues singers of the 1920s and 30s who were known for their lesbian or bisexual lifestyles or lyrics, including Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.
The potentially juicy details of her love life trysts in the 1920s, even if avant-garde for that time- are mere distractions to the barrier breaking work as a songstress, as Waters was one of the first or first few Black women signed to certain labels throughout the 1920s.
In 1933, Waters became the first Black woman to integrate Broadway’s Theatre District in the show “As Thousands Cheer.” Gaining other performance gigs while performing on Broadway, Waters went on to become one of the highest paid artists on Broadway.
Waters’ flood of talent had already stormed through many doors by 1939 when “The Ethel Waters Show” aired on NBC. On the show she performed her Broadway piece “Mamba’s Daughters,” based on the novel by DuBose Heyward, about the Gullah people of South Carolina- offering education to the people of that time.
The actress also had a strong film and television career, which led to Waters becoming the first Black woman to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy and second Black woman to be nominated for an Academy Awards. Waters’ nomination for Best Supporting Actress was for the film 1949 Pinky. In 1950 she was the first Black woman to star in a television series, Beulah, on ABC. She was nominated for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in 1962 for “Route 66.”
Waters’ great-niece, House music sensation Crystal Waters reflected on her aunt’s “firsts” in an April 2018 Instagram post of herself juxtaposed to a picture of the barrier breaking actress and singer in a pose that clearly shows the family resemblance. “Did know my Great Aunt was singer/ actress Ethel Waters? Black woman to have a lead role on a TV show and woman to be nominated for an Oscar,” Waters wrote in the social media caption.
After a long career in the arts, Waters died on Sept. 1, 1977, at the age of 80. A commemorative U.S. Post Stamp was created in her honor in 1994.