Born November 1900
Ethel Waters was one of the most versatile and talented African American entertainers of the twentieth century although her name has fallen into obscurity for all but the most knowledgable blues head. Billie Holiday counted Waters as one of her role models.
Waters was, in fact, the first Black American performer to gain a large White audience and paved the way for other talented performers. This crossover appeal didn't happen without criticism. Her naysayers disliked that she sang differently for black audiences than she did for whites(Waters would typically sing slower tempo and cut out much of the profanity in her lyrics).
Ethel's mother was raped by knife point at the age of 12 and saw Ethel as a horrifying reminder of the attack. Ethel was shuttled between various relatives, who forced her to marry a man 10 years her senior when she was only 13. The ill fated marriage would last one year.
On her own again, Ethel took a job as a domestic. Years later she would enter a talent show and be discovered by vaudeville producers who urged her to take to the road. In addition to her marvelous voice (which sounds a lot like Bessie Smith's), Ethel would also shimmy her hips to the music to get the crowd going.
An instant success, svelte Ethel was billed as "The Stringbean Mama. " She would later sing on the blues record Black Swan Records ever released — a top selling single called “Down Home Blues.”
In addition to her musical career, Ethel also acted in various motion pictures playing mammy characters. As much as she could, Ethel attempted to breath life and dignity into her roles. Her role in the movie Pinky earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in 1949 (she lost to Grace Kelly.)
Like most Oscar nominees, Ethel was a diva and notoriously difficult to work with. When she began to have trouble finding work, she had to appear on a game show to raise money to pay her debts.
Ethel found redemption in 1950, when she starred in The Member of the Wedding playing...a mammy. For the role Waters received the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Actress. Waters was then cast as the title character in the CBS television show Beulah playing...a mammy. The NAACP was so disgusted that they waged an organized protest against the show and it was cancelled.
Most of the Black community by this time didn't know what to make of Waters. Her longstanding friendships with evangelist Billy Graham and Richard Nixon didn't help matters much either. When asked about the Civil Rights Movement, Waters retorted: "I’m not concerned with civil rights. I’m concerned with God-given rights, and they are available to everyone!" Although the sentiment was pure, the statement made her a persona non grata among many progressive Blacks.
Ethel Waters faded completely from the public view in the years that followed and died of organ failure in 1977.
Source: Brittanica.com & Africana.com