13 February 2012

Black History Sound Bites: Nibble 13

Camilla Williams

Camilla Williams (1919-2012) in Pagliacci
Camilla Williams was the first African American to receive a contract with a major American opera company. Throughout Black History Month celebrations in school, I can remember being presented with profiles of Marian Anderson, a contralto who made history when she performed an open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1939. Far less frequently told was the story of Williams, who broke her own racial boundaries when she signed a contract with the New York City Opera in 1946. Her husband, Charles T. Beavers, was one of the principal attorneys for Malcolm X. Williams sang with various opera companies throughout the United States and Europe, performing in classic operas like La boheme, Aida, Pagliacci, and Porgy and Bess. She continued to cross color lines when she became the first African American to sing a major role with the Vienna State Opera. In more ways than one, Williams followed in Marian Anderson's footsteps. In both 1943 and 1944, she won the Marian Anderson Award, an award bestowed upon outstanding young musicians. She is also known for singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" preceding Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C. in 1963; it was an honor originally meant to fall upon Marian Anderson, who was stuck in traffic. Williams died on January 29, 2012, at the age of 92.

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