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As an African American, LGBTQ+ Woman, Ethel Waters Shaped U.S. Entertainment

Ethel Waters singing on a US Stamp. Text around her reads: 29, USA, Ethel Waters, Popular Singer, 1896-1977

Ethel Waters stamp. National Postal Museum. © United States Postal Service. All rights reserved.

Ethel Waters found fame and broke barriers as an American blues singer and actress.

She started her performance career singing in a nightclub in Baltimore, Maryland. She went on to tour with the Braxton and Nugent vaudeville troupe and to record music. She gained notoriety when she performed "St. Louis Blues." She was the first woman to perform the song.

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Ethel Waters holds her hands and stares sadly upward.
Ethel Waters photographed by Alfredo Valente. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © The Valente Collection
 

Over the course of her life, Waters married men three times. Waters lived with her romantic partner Ethel Williams during the 1920s. Her performances and music garnered a large lesbian and gay following. She does not appear to have ever spoken publicly about her sexuality.

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Ethel Waters stands with her hands on her hips, looking off-camera. She stands in front of an elaborately patterned background.
Ethel Waters, from the unrealized portfolio "Noble Black Women: The Harlem Renaissance and After" by Carl Van Vechten. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts. Photograph © Van Vechten Trust; Compilation/Publication © Eakins Press Foundation. From 'O, Write My Name': American Portraits, Harlem Heroes (Eakins, 2015).
 

Waters became one of the highest paid actresses on Broadway, independent of her race. She starred in the Broadway musical As Thousands Cheer, with music by Irving Berlin. In the show, she sang the notable songs "Heat Wave" and "Suppertime." In 1943, she starred in the African American cast film Cabin in the Sky. During World War II, she was part of the Hollywood Victory Committee and sang on the radio for USO camp shows. In her later years, Waters became deeply religious. She toured with evangelist Billy Graham during the 1960s.

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The lobby card has a bright yellow background spangled with stars and musical notes. In the top left corner there is a photograph of Lena Horne, Eddie Anderson, and Ethel Waters standing at a white picket fence.
Lobby card for Cabin in the Sky. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
 

Throughout her career, Waters led the way for future African American artists. She was the second African American to be nominated for an Academy Award. She became the first African American to star in her own television show. She became the first African American woman to be nominated for a primetime Emmy. She also became part of the executive council of Actors Equity and the Negro Actors Guild of America. Through these positions, she supported her fellow actors.

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Ethel Waters singing on a US Stamp. Text around her reads: 29, USA, Ethel Waters, Popular Singer, 1896-1977
 Ethel Waters stamp. National Postal Museum. © United States Postal Service. All rights reserved.
 

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