Ethel Waters set the stage for future African American Stars
Being first can be a gift or a curse. If you’re in a race or competition then placing first most likely makes you a winner. However, if you’re the first person to express a belief or abstract idea you may not be celebrated in the same manner. Sometimes being first means you’ll be ridiculed, punished, or treated as an outcast.
In the past, being first put African Americans in danger or resulted in them killed. Many African American’s sacrificed their time, dignity, and their lives to set precedents and obtain equal rights and treatment. On the other hand, these very sacrifices also led to many victories.
Any time an African American is the first to do something it is celebrated. This is because being first typically sets a precedent that others can follow. When a Black person sets a precedent, it opens the doors of opportunity for many other minorities. For a race of people that has experienced generations of oppression and setbacks, having someone open a door for you is priceless.
Allow me to clear the path
Talented actress and vocalist Ethel Waters opened doors by being the first African-American to star in her own television show. She is also the first African-American woman nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award. Before clearing a path for those who would come after her, she was born in October of 1900 in Chester, Pennsylvania. She is the product of rape. As a teen, her mother was raped by a family friend. Soon after she was born, her young mother married a railroad worker named Norman Howard. Ethel used Howard as a child before she eventually took on her father’s name.
Due to the history of trauma in her family, Ethel had a troubled childhood. She was raised by her grandmother in an unstable environment. Fate would soon catch up to her at the age of 17 when she was persuaded to sing two songs at a costume party. Her performance was so impressive that she was offered an opportunity to work at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore.
After getting her feet wet in performing, she traveled other places singing popular music for audiences until around 1919. Ethel moved to Harlem around this time and became a performer in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. In the following years, she would sign a contract making her the highest paid Black recording artist at the time.
Making headway through Broadway
Ethel’s career took a turn in 1933 when she appeared in an all-black film titled “Rufus Jones for President”. This placed her in the Broadway arena so she began performing on Broadway stages. In 1939 she became the first African American to star in her own television show, “The Ethel Waters Show”. It was a 15-minute variety special on NBC. Years later, she became the first African American actress to star in a television series in 1950.
Beulah was the first nationally broadcast weekly television series to have an African-American in the leading role. It stayed on air on ABC television from 1950 to 1953. She had made history as the first yet again, but she quit after feeling dissatisfied with the portrayal of blacks stating that it was “degrading”.
Before departing from earth in 1977 Ethel Waters opened many doors for Black women in entertainment. She was graceful, multi-talented, and unafraid to demand better for herself. As the first African American to have a leading role on Broadway she performed jazz, swing, and pop music on various Broadway stages.
The very things we take for granted today are the same things others hoped for in the past. For African Americans in history, being first meant that you were taking strides to manifest everything you hoped for. Think about where you might be today if these sacrifices weren’t made and no precedents were set. We are here today as a result of great sacrifices, and it is each of our duty to continually push the culture forward for future generations.
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