National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Elsie M. Warnecke
Born Chester, Pennsylvania
Ethel Waters overcame bleak beginnings to emerge as a versatile singer and actress whose talent propelled her from honky-tonks to Hollywood. Beginning as a blues singer on the black vaudeville circuit while in her teens, Waters later made her way to Harlem, where she entertained at the Cotton Club and other nightspots. From the mid-1920s to the early 1930s, she appeared in all-black revues, including Blackbirds of 1930 and Rhapsody in Black, before moving to mainstream musicals with her performance in Irving Berlin’s As Thousands Cheer (1933). Waters became the first African American actress to play a dramatic lead on Broadway with her role in Mamba’s Daughters (1939), earning acclaim for what one critic hailed as her "complete mastery of the art of acting." She ultimately appeared in more than a dozen Broadway productions and nine films, including Cabin in the Sky (1943) and The Member of the Wedding (1952).