“I never was a child. I never was coddled, or liked, or understood by my family. I never felt I belonged…I was always an outsider.”
So wrote renowned singer, actress, and evangelist Ethel Waters in her 1950 autobiography His Eye is On the Sparrow. And indeed, she had a difficult childhood.
Born in October, 1896 (some sources say 1900) in Chester, Pennsylvania, Ethel was the child of a teenaged rape victim, and grew up in poverty and with rarely consistent supervision. Her grandmother Sally Anderson was an important influence on Ethel but she was often gone because she frequently worked as a live-in domestic. Still, Ethel proved to be unusually bright and resilient! Basically raising herself on the street in an ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood.
When she was eight, Ethel began working for wages cleaning houses, or in hotels as a maid, dishwasher and waitress. But her dream was to become an entertainer!
In 1917 Ethel began to appear in vaudeville shows, and became known for her singing the blues—a popular African American type of music that had appeal even among white audiences. As she moved to Harlem about 1919 and continued to sing in shows. She found that she preferred Black audiences because their enthusiastic response was more welcome than the subdued white audiences. While touring in vaudeville in the south Ethel encountered the racial intolerance that was common in that area. Once while in a town in Alabama, she reluctantly went driving with a black chauffeur in his boss’s car, though she may not have been aware of local white dislike of such practices. There was an accident and Ethel was seriously injured.
Once in the Black ward of the local hospital, she was ignored by medical attendants because she had violated local racial protocols. When a compassionate white nurse warned her to leave town, her friends got her away safely, to where she could receive better treatment. Meanwhile, her chauffeur admirer ended up on a chain gang for several years, for taking the car out without permission.
Then in 1925 a producer friend persuaded her to appear in what was called “white time”—performing before white audiences. She also began to record—blues as well as popular numbers. This paid well and gained her new fans.
Perhaps Ethel’s most popular blues number in her club appearances was The St. Louis Blues by W.C. Handy. This was a piece that she was among the first to use—after she had received permission from the composer’s company to do so.
One early film appearance was in the 1929 film, “On with the Show,” starring Joe E. Brown where she sang Am I Blue? She appeared on screen set in a field holding a basket of newly picked cotton. Today this would be offensive but it was standard for a Black singer at the time.
Ethel also appeared at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club where she introduced the classic Stormy Weather. In the audience one night was Irving Berlin who added Ethel to the cast of his new Broadway musical As Thousands Cheer. One poignant song from the show revealed her as an inspired actress. The number was Suppertime, sung by a woman whose husband had just been lynched. Ethel knew a family whose son had also been lynched, and that experience added to the emotion of her performance.
In 1939 she made further history when she became the first African American to appear on Broadway in a drama, in Mamba’s Daughters. Based on a popular novel, the author rewrote it as a play with Ethel in mind for her role. She played a simple minded woman who resorts to murder to protect her daughter. On the first night there were 16 curtain calls, to be followed by a long run, a successful tour and a return engagement!
Ethel appeared in the play Cabin in the Sky then repeated her performance in 1943. Filmed with an all-black cast including Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Lena Horne.
Engagements began to become fewer but she did appear in another 1949 film. This was Pinky where she played the grandmother of a young black woman who “passes” for white. Ethel’s performance, inspired by her own grandmother, brought an Academy Award nomination!
The next year in 1950 she returned to the stage in Member of the Wedding, where she played a compassionate cook who comforts a small boy in a traumatic family situation. In the play (and later the film) Ethel sang the hymn that would soon become her trademark, His Eye Is on the Sparrow. Again she was nominated for an Academy Award!
Ethel then briefly played the title role in the Beulah TV series but despite her successes, she still felt an emptiness in her life.” According to Stephen Bourne, in his 2007 book Ethel Waters: Stormy Weather, “Ethel had grown tired of long periods of unemployment and taking job offers that were unworthy of her.”
Finally in 1957 when Evangelist Billy Graham held his crusade in New York City’s Madison Square Garden Ethel received some tickets to attend and she did so. She later said, “I was amazed at the serenity and the peace that pervaded…” She described Graham’s words: “….he kept saying how close the Lord is and I kept thinking God isn’t far away, it was me shutting Him out.”
She continued to attend the crusade meetings for several months, joined the choir, and then was asked to sing as a soloist her trademark song His Eye is on the Sparrow. Soon she appeared regularly at future crusades. She wrote at that time a new discovery about God: “I have found in Him everything I need as I never had that shoulder or that lap, but I have it now in my spiritual strength and faith in Him.”
By the 1970s as her health failed, Ms. Waters came to rely on her friends in the Graham organization for continued assistance. She died in September 1977 of cancer.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.