Meet Ethel Waters, The First African American to Star in Her Own Television Program

Meet Ethel Waters, The First African American to Star in Her Own Television Program

She was the first African-American to star on her own television show and the first African-American woman to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award.

Ethel Waters was born on October 31, 1896 in Chester, Pennsylvania. Waters married at the age of 13, but her husband was abusive, and she soon left the marriage and became a maid in a Philadelphia hotel, working for $4.75 per week.

In 1933, Waters appeared in a satirical all-black film, Rufus Jones for President, which featured the child performer Sammy Davis Jr. as Rufus Jones. She went on to star at the Cotton Club, where, according to her autobiography, she “sang ‘Stormy Weather’ from the depths of the private hell in which I was being crushed and suffocated.” In 1933, she had a featured role in the successful Irving Berlin Broadway musical revue As Thousands Cheer with Clifton Webb, Marilyn Miller, and Helen Broderick.

She became the first black woman to integrate Broadway’s theater district more than a decade after actor Charles Gilpin’s critically acclaimed performances in the plays of Eugene O’Neill beginning with The Emperor Jones in 1920.

In 1939 Waters became the first African American to star in her own television show, before Nat King Cole appeared in 1956. The Ethel Waters Show, a 15-minute variety special, appeared on NBC on June 14, 1939.

She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the film Pinky (1949).

In 1950, Waters was the first African American actress to star in a television series, Beulah, which aired on ABC television from 1950 through 1952. It was the first nationally broadcast weekly television series starring an African-American in the leading role.

Waters married three times and had no children.

By 1955, Ethel was deeply in debt, with the IRS hounding her for back taxes and seizing the royalties of her work. She had lost tens of thousands in jewelry and cash in a robbery.

Waters died on September 1, 1977, aged 80, from uterine cancer, kidney failure, and other ailments, in Chatsworth, California.

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