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Pennsylvania Women's History Heritage Trail
Item 20 of 56
This is a marker to commemorate the life of Ethel Waters, one of the most renown singers and actresses of the early 20th century. Waters was born on October 31, 1896, in Chester, Pennsylvania. After a rough childhood, she moved to Baltimore and it was there that her career began. After her big break, Waters went on to become a famous jazz singer and a Broadway sensation. In 1933, Waters appeared in her first all-black film, Rufus Jones for President, that featured the child performer Sammy Davis Jr. as Rufus Jones. She continued her career always holding multiple jobs at once, and was even nominated for an Academy Award in 1949. Waters was married three times, and had no children. She lived a long and successful life that came to an end from uterine cancer on September 1, 1981.

Ethel Waters Commemorative Marker - Route 291 - Chester, Pennsylvania

Ethel Waters Commemorative Marker - Route 291 - Chester, Pennsylvania

Ethel Waters, a famous African American singer and Broadway actress was born on October 31, 1896 in Chester, Pennsylvania. She was best known for her wide vocal range and her slow vibrato. Waters was raised impoverished, by mother, Louise Anderson who gave birth at only thirteen, after being raped by local Caucasian man, John Waters.

Ethel’s first marriage was at age 12, while she was still in school. When she turned 13, she became a chamber maid at a hotel in Philadelphia. That year was filled with firsts for Waters as she also sang in public for the very first time. At 17, she began performing professionally, and billed herself as “Sweet Mama Stringbean.” Soon after, Waters continued her ascent to stardom, moving to New York City and appearing at the Plantation Club in Harlem. That was the performance that lead her to Broadway.

In 1939, Waters became the first African American to star in her own television show, The Ethel Waters Show. This was a 15 minute variety show that included dramatic performances and featured guests. By the late 30’s, Waters had made her way to the top with several Broadway credits. She was considered one of the greatest blues singers, and even performed with some of jazz’s greatest, such as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. On top of her ever growing theater credits, Waters also starred in several movies, even winning the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for her performance in Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding.

After a long life of fighting her way into people’s hearts, Waters died of kidney failure on September 1, 1977 in Chatsworth, California.

  • The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. "Ethel Waters." Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.,August 28, 2019
  • Bourne, Stephen. Ethel Waters: Stormy Weather. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007.
  • Bogle, Donald. Heat Wave: the Life andCareer of Ethel Waters. New York: Harper Perennial, 2012.
  • Reece, Dwandalyn, "Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Waters, And The Colors Of Sound." NPR, NPR, September 4, 2019.
  • "Extravagant Crowd: Ethel Waters." Extravagant Crowd | Ethel Waters. Accessed February 8, 2020.
  • "Ethel Waters Through the Years." Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Accessed February 8, 2020.
  • Fraser, C. Gerald. "Ethel Waters is Dead at 80." The New York Times. The New York Times, September 2, 1977.
  • Haagensen Erik. "Cabaret Review: 'Ethel Waters: Blues, Broadway, and Jazz'." Backstage. Backstage, May 2, 2012.
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