1896 - 1977

“We are all gifted. That is our inheritance.”

 – Ethel Waters

Ethel Waters, born in crushing poverty, escaped to Baltimore and began a new life as “Sweet Mama Stringbean,” a slender and glamorous blues singer on the southern vaudeville circuit. Her technical and emotional agility quickly made her one of the major stars of the Harlem Renaissance era, where she was also well-known for being “in the life” with dancer Ethel Williams. She was the first singer to confront racism in a popular song (“Suppertime”) in 1933, the same year she introduced “Stormy Weather” at the Cotton Club. Waters was the first black woman to receive equal billing with white stars on Broadway. In Hollywood she would also become the first black woman to establish herself as a major American dramatic actress and only the second African-American to be nominated for an Academy Award – for her supporting role in the film “Pinky” (1949). In 1950 she won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award as Best Actress for her luminous performance on Broadway as the maid Berenice in Carson McCullers’s “Member of the Wedding,” a role she reprised on film to further acclaim two years later. In her later years Waters redefined herself as an evangelical Christian. She gave her last performances as a member of Billy Graham’s crusade. She died on September 1, 1977.


Gender Female

Sexual Orientation Lesbian

Gender Identity Cisgender

Ethnicity African American Black

Faith Construct Protestant

Nations Affiliated United States

Era/Epoch Harlem Renaissance (1919-1929) Jazz Age (1910-1940) Roaring Twenties (1920-1929)

Field(s) of Contribution






Commemorations & Honors

Portrait of Ethel Waters by Luigi Lucioni Displayed at the Huntsville Museum of Art in Huntsville Alabama

First African American to Star in Her Own Television Show The Ethel Waters Show (1939)

Second African American to Receive an Academy Award Nomination for Pinky (1949)

Best Actress New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for The Member of the Wedding (1950)

First African American Actress to Star in Her Own Television Show Beulah (1950-1953)

First African American Actor to be Nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for an Episode of Route 66 (1962)

Commemorative U.S. Postage Stamp Issued (1994)


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Original Biography Author
Owen Keehnen
Biography Edited By
Victor Salvo
Resources Coordination
Carrie Maxwell