Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Much of Ethel Waters’ success as a popular twentieth-century entertainer has been credited to the rather simple fact she, in her own words, never forgot who she was and where she came from. She achieved renown as blues singer, theater and film actress, and best selling author. She also emerged as a role model, if not icon, for several decades of African American women. And she accomplished this – and more – by simply remaining true to herself and her own ideals.

As a young girl, Ethel Waters (1896-1977) knew nothing but abject poverty. She was born to a twelve-year-old mother, Louisa Tar Anderson, who had been raped at knifepoint by a white man, from whom she took her surname. Although she was largely raised by her maternal grandmother, Sally Anderson, she also was passed from relative to relative in Chester, Philadelphia, and Cam­den, New Jersey. She lived mostly in Chester, Delaware County, on Waverly Street, and in Philadelphia, on Clifton Street. She battled starvation, vermin, and a pair of alcoholic, violent aunts who routinely beat her, not infrequently drawing blood. She remembered opening cupboard doors to find rats – and not food – on the shelves, staring at her, “alert and antago­nistic.” Young Waters was forced to steal food to survive. Her mother pushed her to marry, at the age of thirteen, twenty-three-year-old Merritt “Buddy” Purnsley, a union that was short-lived. (Purnsley was the first of three husbands.) No matter how grim life seemed, though, her inner strength and willpower helped her abstain from one vice – prostitution – that trapped her aunts and many of their neighbors in a servitude of sorts.

Her autobiography, His Eye is on the Sparrow, published in 1951, offers a candid, if not disturbing, look at her early life in the dismal ghettos of Chester and Philadelphia.

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. I was born out of wedlock, but that had nothing to do with all this. To people like mine, a thing like that just didn’t mean much. Nobody brought me up. I just ran wild as a little girl. I was bad, always a leader of the street gang in stealing and general hell-raising. By the time I was seven I knew all about sex and life in the raw. I could outcurse any stevedore and took a sadistic pleasure in shocking people.

Waters’ toughness, resilience, and independence, the strengths she acquired during her youth in the Philadelphia area, helped her survive the early years of her career on the black vaudeville circuit where her promoters billed her “Sweet Mama Stringbean.” As a vaudeville singer in the South, she combated a hatred that not infrequently exploded into violence. She risked injury, even death, on several occasions. With some trepidation, she boarded a train bound for Macon, Georgia, without her fellow performers, who feared for their safety. She arrived the day after a young African American was hanged for “talking back” to a white man. Not only did she perform, but she also visited the mother of the victim.

In Atlanta, she worked for influential and bigoted theater owner Charles B. Bai­ley. Before Waters had arrived, famous blues singer Bessie Smith had disagreed with Bailey, for which she was beaten and jailed. Waters also jeopardized her safety. “No Yankee nigger,” Bailey confronted Waters, “is telling me how to run my act.” “I’m Ethel Waters,” she retorted, “and I’m standing my ground. And you or no other cracker … can tell me what to do.” Waters barely made it out of Atlanta with both Bailey and the local police at her heels. Nevertheless, despite this ugly episode, and the pervading hostility towards her and black entertainers, she never stopped returning to the South.

Waters’s accomplishments were many, in spite of the adversity she confronted in the South as well as in the North, not only as a black entertainer but also as a writer. She dropped out of elementary school and by the age of eight was working as a domestic. While working as a chamber­maid – for less than five dollars a week – at a Philadelphia hotel, she also appeared in small nightclubs after winning an amateur competition. Her first stage appearance was at the Lin­coln Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland. Her first recordings were “The New York Glide” and “At the New Jump Steady Ball” in 1919 for Cardinal records. Two years later, Black Swan records hired her to record “Down Horne Blues” and “Oh, Daddy,” which became immensely popular. She became well known for her sultry and soulful rendition of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” She toured with Fletcher Henderson and the Black Swan Troubadours, alter which she continued on the vaudeville circuit, but also worked in several theatrical revues. She declined an offer to travel to Paris with the Revue Negre, which gave Josephine Baker her proverbial big break in show business. Irving Berlin, a well as many entertainment luminaries, thronged to Harlem’s Cotton Club in 1933 to see the “Stormy Weather Show.” When he heard Waters sing the title song, backed by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Berlin signed her for the musical As Thousands Cheer. Her accolades began exceeding her bookings.

For her role in the 1949 film version of the musical Pinky, she became the first African American to receive an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress. (The award went to Mercedes McCambridge for her role of Sadie Burke in All the King’s Men.) The following year Waters won the New York Drama Critics Award for her portrayal of Berenice Sadie Brown, the maternal confidant to a troubled Southern girl, Frankie Addams, in Car­son McCullers’s The Member of the Wed­ding. Waters’s 1951 autobiography, which took its title from her character’s hit song, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” became a best seller.

Her talent inspired a number of famous entertainers. Broadway star Carol Chan­ning pinpointed her theatrical ambitions to the very day she saw Waters perform in a matinee on the Great White Way in 1933. “When she began to sing,” Channing recalled, “I got thrilled, it was embarrassing … I lost my breath. I was throbbing all over. It was like being in love .. .. It was beyond judgment. And I was hooked.” Sophie Tucker, who began recording a decade before Waters, sought out Waters for lessons in song delivery. Billie Holliday took Waters’s lyrics and adopted them as her own, calling them “Billie Blues.” Lena Home, who sang Waters’s version of “Stormy Weather,” gave her one of the highest compliments when she proclaimed her “the mother of us all.”

Although students of music might argue whether or not Ethel Waters was actually the mother of all blues singers­ – many had performed before her – no one can dispute the fact that she fit a critical role that great African American female blues artists filled. They were the early twentieth-century version of a griot, an African spiritual leader, songwriter, singer, or historian – and oftentimes a combination of all four. In African cul­ture, griots were healers of the soul and, literally, singing historians. America’s blues singers emulated griots with bal­lads that echoed cultural nuances and responses to current events, such as Prohibition with songs such as “I’m Wild About Moonshine.” Other songs highlighted urban life, such as “Harlem on My Mind,” which celebrated the Harlem Renaissance, a movement that turned the upper Manhattan neighborhood into the epicenter of black culture in the twenties, attracting writers, artists, playwrights, and musicians from throughout the country.

Blues singers elevated toilsome, menial, and repetitive labor with spirited rhythms. For the most part, from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries, jobs offered to blacks in the United States were generally those that no one else wanted. In metropolitan centers in the North, African Americans worked as street cleaners, stevedores, porters, bar­bers, waiters, teamsters, and cooks. The Philadelphia Social Historical Project discovered that they found it difficult, if not impossible, to find work in manufacturing, even though an African American typically lived within one mile of twenty-three thousand factory jobs. African Americans south of the Mason-Dixon Line worked as sharecroppers, farmers who leased land from plantation owners and their tenant farmers, or farmers who worked the land directly for plantation owners. In 1920, tenant farmers and share­croppers made up nearly seventy-two per­cent of plantation land. Neither group owned the land they farmed and barely received subsistence living wages; both occupations were little better than slavery.

Many of the songs performed by jazz and blues artists, both male and female, helped ease the pain of racism, which reiterated their roles as a new, emerging breed of urban griot. In the closing decades of the late nineteenth century through the opening years of the twentieth century – among the most difficult periods they encountered – blacks in the United States found no safe haven in either the North or the South. W.E.B. Du Bois characterized the circumstances when he wrote, “the North is no paradise, but the South is the best system of caste and insult, at worst a Hell” (see “‘To Be Both a Negro and an American’: W.E.B. Du Bois and His Search for an African American Identity” by William C. Kasha­tus, Spring 2001).

The migration of African Americans from the South initially surprised but eventually shocked both whites and blacks living in northern cities. They quickly began to relegate the unwanted newcomers to cramped, dirty, and gener­ally undesirable sections of their communities. With poor housing and even poorer prospects for employment, many of the migrants were forced to resort to crimes of vice, including prostitution, alcohol, gambling, and drugs. It was only inevitable that prejudice and persecution grew.

Waters’s soulful, sweaty blues helped her – and many like her – to deal with the pain of prejudice and violence. In As Thousands Cheer, Waters played the role of the wife of an African American hanged by an angry mob. She sings Berlin’s “Sup­per Tune,” which underscores her grief as she makes dinner for her family, knowing that her husband will never again sit at their table. “I was so emotionally moved,” she said after performing “Sup­per Tune” during her first dress rehearsal, “that I sobbed uncontrollably for ten minutes after the number was finished. Seems like I found myself pouring out the soul of the whole colored race.”

Like many ambitious blues singers of her day, Waters used her sexuality to jumpstart her career, beginning as a shim­my dancer and singer. “I sure knew how to roll and quiver,” she said, “and my hips would become whirling dervishes.” It was her sultriness that first attracted audiences. When she first performed, at the age of seventeen, at Jack’s Rathskeller at the corner of Juniper and South Streets in Philadelphia, audiences clamored for several encore performances. That day she received her first contract to perform in Baltimore. In Africana, her first Broad­way musical, in 1927, she was compared to Raquelle Meller, of Spain, an international sex symbol of theater and screen whose scanty dresses exposed her midriff and long legs.

Waters relied on her experiences in a way that made her a natural for show business. She developed her sex appeal from the prostitutes that had surrounded her as a young girl. To her, “the prettiest sight in the whole Eighth Ward, Philadel­phia, came at dusk when lights were turned on in the sporting [prostitution] houses.” She would stand on the streets and gaze in awe at the beautiful women sitting in windows wearing low-cut evening gowns or silken kimonos. To earn money, she laundered their clothes. Just before the police would raid the houses of prostitution, Waters would lead neighborhood children in singing loudly to alert the prostitutes. It was from these streetwise strumpets that she learned the magic and allure of seduc­tiveness, on which she capitalized in her early appearances in the 1920s.

Waters’ selection of songs proved to be as provocative as her dancing. When she joined the Hill Sisters, she trouped her way through the South performing songs such as “I Wanna Be Somebody’s Baby Doll So I Can Get My Lovin’ All the Time” and “Come Right In and Stay a While, There Ain’t Nobody Here But Me.” Despite her highly distinctive stylistic ren­derings, she was not professionally trained in voice. When once asked who had taught her to sing, she replied, “Who ever teaches fish to swim and birds to fly. I can’t ever remember having a lesson.” Her goal, she claimed, was to sing songs that were genuine and heartfelt. “A song is a story – that’s how it is to me – and I sing it so it tells the story,” she remarked.

Waters claimed she succeeded on both stage and screen because she only took roles to which she could relate, often portraying her grandmother. It was Sally Anderson who had provided the sparse stability during her early years. After her death, Waters said she “had been all heart and fighting fury, I thought of how hard she’d work for the little she’d wanted from life and how she never got that little – a clean shack to come back to on her day off … the smell and the good taste of respectability. But, she kept her head up, never quitting or whimpering.” Her portrayals celebrated the woman who had inspired her. Film historians and critics believe her most successful role was as Granny Dysey Johnson, the worldly wise grandmother of Pinky, a light-skinned African American strug­gling with her identity, in director Elia Kazan’s 1949 film by the same name. Pinky, originally a controversial novel about miscegenation written by Cid Ricketts, also starred Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore, William Lundigan, and Basil Ruysdael.

The role Waters cherished most was that of Hagar in Mamba’s Daughters, a 1939 dramatization of black life by DuBose Heyward (1885-1940), which explores the relationship of three gen­erations of women: a grandmother, Mamba, her daughter Hagar, and her daughter Lissa. Waters saw her charac­ter as an uncanny combination of her own grandmother and mother. A tough woman with a sordid past, Hagar worked as a live-in maid and would do practically anything to pro­tect her daughter. The production ends with Hagar strangling a man who threat­ened to ruin Lissa’s singing career, and then killing herself as she listened to her daughter’s voice on the radio. After her first performance in Mamba’s Daughters­ – for which she received seventeen curtain calls – Waters said, “if I died here and now … it would be all right. For this is the pinnacle, and there will never be anything better or higher or bigger for me.” Her emotionally charged Broadway performance spellbound audiences and garnered a hug backstage from the generally reserved Eleanor Roosevelt.

What Waters did not fully appreciate at the time was that many African Amer­ican women identified with the role she was playing. Circumstances forced many of these women to work as domestics, spending long days away from their families. Less that one percent of Philadelphia’s African American women were full-time housewives at the opening of the twentieth century. Of the more than ninety-eight percent of these women in the workforce, seventy percent labored in domestic work as cooks, washerwomen, chambermaids, seam­stresses, and servants. The worst part of working as a domestic was neither the low wages or the long hours, but unpleasant tasks, irregularity of working schedules, and “the built-in uncertainty of having always to answer to the whims of other people.” They sacri­ficed much to provide for their families, and Waters perpetuated pride in domestic duties by reiterating their importance. Her intent was simple. Hers was not a proclamation that African Americans worked best as domestics; it was her way of stating that all people, including African American women, should be proud of what they do. They were the heroines that Waters celebrated on film and in the theater.

Unfortunately for Ethel Waters, as times changed, she did not. Beginning in 1950, she played a lead role, another character actor type that also recalled her grandmother, in the television comedy series Beaulah. The Hendersons employed Beaulah as their cook, pronounced “the irrepressible queen of the kitchen,” who attempted to solve her white employers’ family problems. Waters was especially proud of her role, particularly because her grandmother had worked as a servant all her life, but black and liberal organizations denounced her for perpetuating a stereotype. “I don’t know whether we will forgive this sort of stereotyping on television nearly as well as we did on radio,” observed John Cros­by in the April 29, 1951, edition of the Philadelphia Bulletin. Such criticism wounded Waters, who could not imagine why anyone would decry her portrayal of her grandmother’s occupation, which had consumed the best years of her life. While politicians, activists, and journalists championed the emerging civil rights movement, Waters seemed comfortable to continue portraying characters that seemed dated, and “regressive,” according to some. Even the public did not understand her views, which she dis­cussed in an interview with Hervey Breit, that appeared in the October 22, 1951, edition of the New York Times. “It’s not a Negro story, it’s a human story,” she told Breit, elaborating that this was a story about her life, not because she was black, not because she was a woman, but simply because she was Ethel Waters.

Her fearless independence, her belief in herself, and her fierce dedication to her integrity helped her claim fame but also propelled her downfall. She had been a great vocalist and, later, a widely popular character actor who, in her twilight years, became nothing short of anachronistic. In her final years, she became a regular on Billy Graham’s televised evangelism cru­sades, also touring with him from 1957 until 1976. She also appeared, in 1961, on the television series Route 66.

Ethel Waters, who died on September 2, 1977, in Chatsworth, California, a long way from home in Philadelphia, has been remembered in the annals of history as individual who in her own way reinterpreted the image of the older African American woman in the twentieth century. Her ability to transform roles into characters with humanity, warmth, and conviction contributed to the extinction of the old style “Mammy” characters. She discredited African American stereotypes, even though her harshest critics asserted she didn’t change enough.

Although she is credited with introducing the blues to mainstream America, her stature has been eclipsed by a number of African American entertainers. Late in life, however, several honors came her way. She served as grand marshal of the Delaware County Bar Association’s Law Day parade in Chester on May 2, 1973, a day that Governor Milton J. Shapp proclaimed “Ethel Waters Day” in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Military College, now Widener University, in Chester, named her an honorary graduate. In 1992, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission erected a state historical marker commemorating Philadelphia’s Standard Theatre, at Twelfth and South Streets, which “featured noted Black American entertainers of the 1920s including Duke Ellington and Ethel Waters.” It’s not cast in stone, but, rather, in aluminum that Ethel Waters has, indeed, made her mark on history.


For Further Reading

DuBois, W.E.B. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

Lane, Roger. Roots of Violence in Black Philadelphia, 1860-1900. Cambridge: Har­vard University Press, 1986.

Mandle, Jay R. Not Slave, Not Free. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992.

Meally, Robert G.O., ed. The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Ward, C. Geoffrey, and Ken Burns. Jazz, A History of America’s Music. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Waters, Ethel, and Charles Samuels. His Eye is on the Sparrow: An Autobiography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1951.


Edward McCann, of West Chester, received his bachelor’s degree in history and social studies teacher certification from West Chester University of Pennsylvania. He is a reading teacher at Upper Darby High School in Darby, Delaware County. He has also taught colonial Philadelphia history, American history, western civilization, African history, Middle Eastern history, and the history of terrorism. The author previously worked for the National Liberty Museum, Philadel­phia, and the Chester County Historical Soci­ety, West Chester.