By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
Ethel Waters, born on October 31, 1896 in Chester, Pennsylvania, was an African-American woman who gained fame and fortune as a singer (blues, jazz) and actress. She was the first African-American woman to star in a dramatic play on Broadway. In 1950, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in “Pinky”.
In the movie she plays the grandmother of “Pinky”, a young African-American woman from the southern United States who passes for White while attending school in the North. In that same year she won the New York Drama Critics Award for her role in the play, “The Member of the Wedding”. Waters performed in several films and plays including “Cairo” (1942) and “Cabin in the Sky” (1943.) These were extraordinary achievements for an African-American woman in the first half of the 20th century. She also wrote two autobiographies, “His Eye is on the Sparrow”, published in 1951 and “To Me it’s Wonderful”, published in 1977.
In 1896, the year Ethel Waters was born, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in “Plessy v Ferguson” to uphold segregation in America. This United States Supreme Court decision made segregation legal in all areas of American life, including those areas of American life that had not yet been invented e.g., television and movies. Waters made history as the first African-American woman to host a national radio program and a television program and did both during the years before segregation was outlawed. The “Plessy v Ferguson” decision was law until 1954 with the Supreme Court decision in the “Brown v Board of Education” case when segregation was declared unconstitutional.
>From humble beginnings (born in dire poverty), not surprising for African-Americans who were just one generation removed from slavery, Waters’ first venture into show business was as a singer. The blues and jazz where she excelled are both acknowledged African-inspired genres.
White British journalist Nigel Williamson, in his 2007 book, “The Rough Guide to the Blues”, in answer to the question “where did the blues begin?” wrote: “It was born again and again, every time another African gazed for the last time at the land of his or her birth as the slave ships hauled anchor and began their terrifying journey across the ocean into the unknown, leaving Mother Africa behind forever.
“Many never completed the journey and died on the voyage, their bodies unceremoniously thrown overboard into the turbulent waters of the Atlantic. For those who survived the grueling voyage, a cruelly unfathomable life awaited, in which the only certainties were captivity and misery.”
The life Waters led from birth until she made her fortune (for a while) singing “the blues” really prepared her to authentically sing “the blues”. Forced by her mother into marriage as a 13-year-old to a 19 year-old abusive young man she remained in the marriage for a year. After leaving her jealous and abusive husband the then 14-year-old Waters worked as a domestic servant which was the only work most African-American women could obtain at the time.
Ethel Waters is considered a pioneer in the entertainment industry because she was able to rise above the drudgery of the backbreaking domestic work to which many African-American women were relegated and become the first female African-American superstar.
It was not an easy road to her eventual stardom because of the White supremacist society in which she lived. There were many hurdles to jump before becoming the first African-American woman to host a national radio program and a television program. Beginning as a blues and jazz singer in segregated African-American vaudeville shows Waters was subjected to the segregation laws of the southern United States. She eventually made her way North to Harlem, New York where she performed in several clubs including the Cotton Club, the Lafayette Theatre and the Lincoln Theatre.
In his 2001 book “Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters”, African-American film historian Donald Bogle writes: “Ethel Waters arrived in New York – that delicious Big Apple, that city of grand dreams and high hopes – full of optimism and burning with ambition. Better than anyone else, she understood what she had going for herself. She knew she could put a song across. Not lost on her was her own sexy appeal. She had already begun to make a name for herself on the road in all those rickety theaters and then in Philadelphia.
“Unlike countless other newcomers to the city, she was not looking for work. She came armed with a booking at the Lincoln Theatre in Harlem.”
Waters arrived in Harlem at the beginning of the “Harlem Renaissance” which is described in part on the Public Broadcasting Service website as: “… the name given to the cultural, social and artistic explosion that took place in Harlem between the end of World War I and the middle of the 1930s.
“During this period, Harlem was a cultural center, drawing black writers, artists, musicians, photographers, poets and scholars. Many had come from the South, fleeing its oppressive caste system in order to find a place where they could freely express their talents. Among those artists whose works achieved recognition were Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, Countee Cullen and Arna Bontemps, Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer, Walter White and James Weldon Johnson.
“The Renaissance was more than a literary movement. It involved racial pride, fueled in part by the militancy of the ‘New Negro’ demanding civil and political rights. The Renaissance incorporated jazz and the blues.”
Waters’ arrival in Harlem at the beginning of the “Renaissance” with her talent put her in a position to influence generations of entertainers. In “Heat Wave”, Bogle wrote that Waters “was a young woman who would soon usher in a whole new contemporary style for young African-American women.”
Popular African-American singers including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn were influenced by Waters. Lena Horne described her as “the mother of us all”. Many of today’s young African-American entertainers – singers, actresses, comedians etc. – (and those who imitate their style) owe much to Ethel Waters who was born 117 years ago just 31 years after slavery was abolished in the United States.
The beginning of the “blues” music that catapulted her to stardom arrived in the U.S. with her enslaved ancestors. In the “The Rough Guide to the Blues” Williamson acknowledges: “It is commonplace today to recognize the influence of African culture on the blues and other aspects of black American life. But it was not always so. Even half a century ago, the myth persisted that Africa was a “dark continent” devoid of any history before the coming of Europeans and the subsequent colonial era. However, when the traders and slavers arrived in the 17th century they found sophisticated societies and political systems, organized into kingdoms and empires that were dominated by tribal groupings. Among the most important were the Mandingo, the Ashanti, the Fulani, the Ibo, the Fanti and the Jolof.
“Unable to transport their instruments, they took their songs and voices, and soon fashioned instruments out of the materials available in the New World. Although they were so far from home, the music they brought survived, handed down from generation to generation on the plantations, and it was eventually to have a profound influence on the birth of both jazz and blues. ”
October 15, 1953 was designated “Ethel Waters Day” in New York City by Mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri. Waters was honoured on a U.S. Postal Service stamp issued September 1, 1994 as part of the Legends of American Music series. Her stamp was issued at a ceremony at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City.