Ethel Waters: Singer and Oscar-nominated actress broke barriers

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Singer and actress Ethel Waters, from the 1943 film “Cabin in the Sky.” CARL VAN VECHTEN / COURTESY OF LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Singer and actress Ethel Waters, from the 1943 film “Cabin in the Sky.” CARL VAN VECHTEN / COURTESY OF LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Ethel Waters was a popular blues, jazz and gospel singer and Oscar-nominated actress often credited with helping open the doors for other African-Americans in entertainment.

She was also the first African-American actress to star in a television series, “The Beulah Show,” a comedy series about a maid, which ran in the early 1950s. She had received a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for her role in the 1949 movie “Pinky.”

She also was a well-respected Broadway performer.

It all began, though, in Pennsylvania.

Waters was born Oct. 31, 1896, in Chester, Pa., to a teenage mother, Louise Anderson, the result of a rape. She was raised by her grandmother and aunts and had a rough childhood.

She wrote in her autobiography, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” that as a child, she was never coddled, or liked or understood by her family.

Her mother married Norman Howard, and Waters went by that name — and others — before deciding to use her biological father’s surname.

She worked as a maid at a young age and dropped out of high school as a teenager, according to

She started singing professionally at age 17, billing herself as "Sweet Mama Stringbean."

She always loved singing and for years toured on the vaudeville circuit and later began recording on the Cardinal and Black Swan labels.

She appeared in theater and became known for her rendition of songs such as “Stormy Weather” (1933).

Over the years, she performed with greats like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.

Waters later rededicated her life to God.

She toured with the Billy Graham Crusade and once talked about a time in 1957 at the old Madison Square Garden when “I, Ethel Waters, a 380-pound decrepit old lady, rededicated her life to Jesus Christ.”

She said during a 1975 performance — before launching into “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” — “Boy, because He lives, just look at me now. I’m telling you, I’m modeling for him. I look good and I know it.”

She died Sept. 1, 1977, in California.


Actress digs in for role as Ethel Waters


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