The life of Camilla Williams was one of many firsts: the first African American performer in a leading U.S. opera company, first African American professor of voice at Indiana University, first African American to appear at the Vienna State Opera, and the first African American woman to receive the key to her hometown of Danville, Virginia. On top of many firsts, Williams was also a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department, an award-winning performer and college professor of voice and music. She was featured in the 1984 edition of the New Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians’ Most Important Women of the Twentieth Century.
In 1975, the Amistad Research Center acquired the papers of Camilla Williams, a preeminent lyric soprano and international advocate for the arts. The collection was donated by Williams and it expanded the papers of operatic singers held by Amistad. The collection traces her prolific career as a musician and diplomat through a comprehensive assemblage of personal correspondence, photographs, scrapbooks, and memorabilia. A vast proportion of the material stems from her life as a performer and includes dozens of music programs, press clippings and correspondence with other musicians and cultural arts advocates. Notable among the music programs was her commitment to featuring unusual selections of music in her recitals, which consisted of complex arrangements of spirituals and Black folk songs. The bulk of her papers range from 1944 to 1975 when Williams was most productive professionally.
Williams, born in Danville, Virginia, in 1919, always surrounded herself with music. After earning her B.S. at Virginia State College, Williams taught music briefly before attending the University of Pennsylvania. She studied voice with Marian Szekely-Freschl, a prominent singer, and modern foreign languages. Williams quickly ascended in popularity and signed a record deal with RCA Victor. She made her operatic debut in 1946, serving as the title role in Giacomo Puccini’s successful run of Madama Butterfly. Two years later she starred in Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, and performed in concert tours in Central America and the Caribbean. Many of the accolades she acquired throughout her career were the Page One Award from the Newspaper Guild of New York, and recognition on the 1950 Honor Roll of the Chicago Defender.
For nearly three decades Williams continued to record and perform, starring in the first complete recording of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Idomeneo. It was in the 1950s and 1960s that Williams began to use her position as a cultural arts ambassador to spread her love of music in the U.S., Israel, Central Africa, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and South America under the auspices of the American National Theater and the U.S. State Department. Throughout the 70s and 80s, Williams transitioned from performing to teaching, working as a teacher of voice at Brooklyn College, Bronx College, Indiana University, and the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China. In 2011, shortly before her passing, Williams penned her autobiography, The Life of Camilla Williams, African American Classical Singer and Opera Diva.
Though her life was one of many firsts, her death does not signal an end to her illustrious legacy: through the work of the Amistad Research Center her imprint on music and culture will not be forgotten. The finding aid for the Camilla Williams papers is located here.
Image from the Camilla Williams papers. Images from the Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.