(BRPROUD) — At 13, Ethel Waters couldn’t have known that life would take her on a whirlwind journey through the entertainment industry as a singer and actress.

She was born on October 31, 1896, in Chester, Pennsylvania, growing up in poverty before marrying at the age of 12. Her American blues, jazz singing entertainment career began at 13 years old when she sang in public for the first time in a local nightclub. By 17, she began billing herself “Sweet Mama Stringbean.”

Waters sang professionally in Baltimore, Maryland, and was the first woman to sing W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” on stage. This was the first of many “firsts” she would later be known for.

Her singing career soon took her to New York City where she appeared at the Plantation Club in Harlem in 1925 which would pave her way into Broadway.

On Broadway she would be in the all-Black theatrical production Africana in 1927, Blackbirds in 1930 and Rhapsody in Black in 1931. In 1933 Waters would appear in her first musical that didn’t have an all-Black cast, As Thousands Cheer.

Outside of the many musicals she appeared in, she also acted in just as many films. Some of the films she appeared in include Rufus Jones for President (1933), Cairo (1942), Cabin in the Sky (1943), Pinky (1949), and The Sound and the Fury (1959), just to name a few. Waters was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Pinky.

Another notable accomplishment was when Waters became the first Black woman to star in her own television show, The Ethel Waters Show (1939). The variety show was 15 minutes long and aired on NBC.

Waters died of cancer on September 1, 1977, in Chatsworth, California.

Ethel Waters forged through the entertainment industry, garnering a handful of “firsts.” Her career firsts:

  • First Black woman to appear on radio (1922)
  • First Black woman to star alone at the Palace Theater in New York (1925)
  • First Black woman to star in a commercial network radio show (1933)
  • First singer to introduce 50 songs that became hits (1933)
  • First Black singer to appear on television (1939)
  • First Black woman to star on Broadway in a dramatic play (1939)