Ethel Waters – The Forgotten Pioneer

By Dr. Justin P. Cowan

1840s: Minstrel shows are developed to provide an entire evening of black-face entertainment for white audiences. These shows developed racial archetypes that are still prevalent today, such as the archetype of “The Mammy,” and continue to be popular until the early 1900s.

1890s: Vaudeville becomes so popular that “Circuits” are formed in an effort to tour vaudeville shows all across America. Black-face minstrelsy continues to be featured in various vaudeville acts.

1896: Ethel Waters is born in Philadelphia.

George Walker, Adah Overton Walker, and Bert Williams dance in Broadway musical, In Dahomey.

1903: The first full-length musical written and performed solely by artists of color opens on Broadway: In Dahomey by Will Marion Cook and Paul Laurence Dunbar.

1910: Ethel Waters is discovered at 14 years old by two vaudeville booking agents while singing in a small Philadelphia bar. She begins to perform in small vaudeville houses in the north and south, eventually being billed as “Sweet Mama Stringbean.”

Ethel Waters as ‘Sweet Mam Stringbean”

1919: At 23 years old, Ethel Waters begins performing at Edmond’s Cellar in Harlem in addition to her vaudeville performances. Here, she begins to make a name for herself in New York City, while fellow black musicians continue to develop jazz around her.

1921: The longest running musical written and performed solely by artists of color opens on Broadway: Shuffle Along by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake.

1924: Ethel Waters is 28 years old and begins headlining in larger NYC nightclubs, like  the Plantation Club and Cotton Club. (All the while, she is still performing on the vaudeville circuit.

1925: Waters records “Dinah,” her first hit song with a major recording studio, Columbia Records.

1927: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat opens on Broadway, and features the first integrated cast on a Broadway stage.

A scene from the original Broadway production of Show Boat.

1929: Waters appears in her first feature film, On with the Show, and she debuts the hit song “Am I Blue?” Meanwhile, she continues performing on the vaudeville circuit, and in Europe.

1933: Headlining at the Cotton Club, Waters introduces the legendary hit song, “Stormy Weather.”

1933: Irving Berlin writes As Thousands Cheer for Broadway, including two songs for Waters to debut: “Heatwave” and “Suppertime.”

1939: Waters stars in DuBose Heyward’s new Broadway play, Mamba’s Daughters, and becomes the first person of color to have their own Variety TV spot, The Ethel Waters Show on NBC.

1940: Ethel Waters returns to Broadway to star in Cabin in the Sky. That same year, Hattie McDaniel becomes the first person of color to win an Academy Award for her role in Gone with the Wind.

1943: Ethel Waters reprises her role Petunia Jackson stars in the film adaptation of Cabin in the Sky.

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Ethel Waters and Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson in the film version of Cabin in the Sky.

1949: Waters stars as Dicey Johnson in Pinky, and is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance.

1950: Ethel Waters stars in the Broadway play, Member of the Wedding.

1950-1952: Waters stars in the ABC television series, Beulah, the first nationally broadcast weekly TV series with a person of color in the leading role.

1952:  Waters reprises her role in the film adaptation of Member of the Wedding.

Ethel Waters in the film version of Member of the Wedding.

1957: Ethel Waters begins singing with the Billy Graham Crusade, and continues to sing with them for the next 20 years. The song “His Eye is on the Sparrow” becomes her signature song with the Crusade.

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Ethel Waters and Billy Graham in 1957.

1962: Ethel Waters becomes the first woman of color to be nominated for a Prime Time Emmy Award for her appearance on an episode of the hit TV show, Route 66.

1977: Ethel Waters passes away from uterine cancer and kidney failure.