Although relatively unknown today, Bert Williams was the first black performer to appear in white musical shows. One account states that Egbert Austin Williams was born in Antigua, the West Indies in 1875, and that his family emigrated from the West Indies to Riverside, California, in 1885. Other records indicate he was born in 1874in Nassau, the Bahamas. Since he was light skinned, his birth certificate lists him as being of “mixed race.” The family’s emigration to the United States also shows that they may have first gone to Florida, then to California.
With no ambitions to go into show business, Bert claimed to have graduated from high school in 1893 and planned to attend Stanford University to become an engineer. Why this did not occur is not clear, but it’s likely that in those days of racial barriers his ambitions were impossible to fulfill. Eventually he became a singing waiter in hotels. In 1893, the year he said he had graduated from high school, he joined Martin and Selig’s Minstrel Show based in San Francisco. Other accounts state that he joined Lew Johnson’s minstrel tour of lumbering camps in northern California. To his chagrin, he discovered he had to play what were called “nigger” characters. Also at this time, he joined forces with another African American performer, George Walker. For the next two years, they struggled as singers and comedians in second rate establishments until they began to publish songs in 1895. Thus encouraged, they decided to go east and try to break into the big time. During their travels east, they were almost lynched in Cripple Creek, Colorado, by a mob who “decided the pair’s clothing was too fine for African Americans” and forced them to remove their clothing and wear burlap. By the time they reached Chicago, they were in rags. Finally, they found work as minstrels wearing blackface. Williams emerged as the comedian of the team when his makeup ran down his face in streaks. This proved to have a comic effect, which Williams perfected as a stereotyped kind of African American: “the humble, shiftless, slouch Negro who could neither read nor write but who had a certain hard, and not altogether inaccurate, philosophy of life.”
Eventually they arrived in New York in 1896 and worked as featured performers in various vaudeeville houses. During this period, they added two women to their act. One of them, Aida Reed Overton, became Walker’s wife. Their fortunes took a turn upwards when they met the producer William Marion Cook in 1898. Cook and the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar collaborated on a play, “Senegambian Carnival,” which became the first touring play to revolve around Williams and Walker. They then appeared in “A Lucky Coon” and “The Policy Players,” but their biggest hit was “Sons of Ham,” which lasted two seasons. The two partners appeared in several more plays together, including “Abyssinia,” in 1906. It was in this play that Williams introduced the song, “Nobody.” This became so identified with Williams that he had to sing it at every performance for the rest of his life.
Although Walker and Williams continued to work together, their relationship became strained. Having never really been close friends, differences in temperament made their professional lives difficult. However, they did produce a new show, “Bandanna Land,” in 1908.
In 1909, during the run of “Bandanna Land,” Walker became ill and had to retire from the stage. Since Walker had been the business manager, Williams had to take over Walker?s duties. He opened a revue, “Mr. Load of Koal,” which received good reviews. However, Williams discovered he was temperamentally unsuited for managing, and the musical closed in May 1909. Williams continued to perform successfully as a single act in vaudeville theaters with white performers despite attempts by them to ban him.
In 1910, Ziegfeld approached Williams to appear in his 1910 “Follies,” where he would be billed as “The Blackbird with Songs.” The white performers already under contract threatened a revolt, but Ziegfeld said they were all replaceable except for Williams who was “unique.” Williams also appeared in the 1911 and 1912 “Follies” and was an enormous hit. In the 1911 “Follies” he introduced the song, “Woodman, Spare that Tree,” written for him by Irving Berlin
During his years in vaudeville and as a featured performer in the Follies, Williams continued writing songs and making records on wax cylinders. Although he had signed a contract with Ziegfeld he decided not to appear in the 1913 “Follies” because of segregation and discrimination suffered during tours of the South. He did appear in the 1916 and 1917 “Follies”, however. Nevertheless, he was becoming more and more outspoken about the injustices facing a black performer in segregated productions.
He left vaudeville for a short time to appear in two short films in 1914, only one of which is now remembered: “Darktown Jubilee.” This film is believed to be the first with an all-black cast. After it received angry reactions from whites in a mixed race audience in Brooklyn, the film was never widely circulated. Only two films Williams made in 1916 now survive: “Fish” and “A Natural Born Gambler.”
By now, Williams was so distressed with segregation he refused to perform in the South, although he did appear in the 1916 and 1917 versions of the “Follies.” He wrote an essay about his experiences with segregation in the “American Magazine” and “New York Age” in 1918. In 1919 he made what is considered his most famous comment about race in the “American Magazine”: “People sometimes ask me if I would give anything to be white. I answer’I have never been able to discover that there was anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have often found it inconvenient in America.'”
Although William appeared in various Ziegfeld productions until 1919, he continued to chafe under the injustices of segregation. In 1920, he starred in “Broadway Brevities of 1920,” with Eddie Cantor, who had had a falling out with Ziegfeld because of his activities as a leader in Equity strikes. In 1921, Williams appeared in “Shuffle Along,” created in part by his good friend, Eubie Blake, with an all-black cast.
“Shuffle Along” ran for three years, but Williams left the show to star in an all-black musical, “Under the Bamboo Tree,” in 1922. He had been suffering for some time from heart problems, but he continued to work. During a performance in Detroit on February 27, 1922, he collapsed after ten minutes. On March 4, 1922, at the age of only forty-seven, he died at his home in New York City.
Williams’s recordings have been collected and are available on CD. To listen to excerpts from his records, one can find them at http:/www.archeophone.com/Catalogue/Pioneers/5002.html. These include not only his songs, but also his monologues, including “Elder Eatmore’s Sermon on Throwing Stones,” illustrating Williams’s “ability to portray hypocritical religious figures.”
His final recordings dealt with the subject of the day: Prohibition. Three of his most famous songs were: “Ten Little Bottles,” “Save a Little Dram for Me,” and “Everybody Wants a Key to My Cellar.”
This great comedian, actor, and singer deserves to be remembered not only for his enormous talents, but for his unstinting efforts trying to eliminate racial segregation in the United States. About Williams, Booker T. Washington wrote: “Bert Williams has done more for his race than I have. He has smiled his way into people’s hearts. I have been obliged to fight my way.”