• Black History Month: Singer, Oscar-nominated actress Ethel Waters broke barriers

    By: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    Updated:

    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 received a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for her role in the 1949 movie "Pinky" and she also was a well-respected Broadway performer.

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    Waters was born Oct. 31, 1896, in Chester, Pennsylvania, 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, liked or understood by her family.

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    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, dropped out of high school as a teenager, according to Encyclopedia.com, and started singing professionally at age 17, billing herself as "Sweet Mama Stringbean."

    Waters 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 renditions of songs such as 1933's "Stormy Weather." Over the years, she performed with greats like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.

    Waters toured with the Billy Graham Crusade and talked about rededicating her life to God in 1957 at the old Madison Square Garden, saying: "I, Ethel Waters, a 380-pound decrepit old lady, rededicated her life to Jesus Christ." During a 1975 performance — before launching into "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" — she said: "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.

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