CARIBBEAN AMERICAN HERITAGE MONTH WITH THIA
1. #BERTWILLIAMS #ENTERTAINMENT PIONEER #BAHAMAS
Bert Williams (November 12, 1874 – March 4, 1922) was one of the pre-eminent entertainers of the Vaudeville era and one of the most popular comedians for all audiences of his time. He was by far the best-selling black recording artist before 1920. In 1918, the New York Dramatic Mirror called Williams “one of the great comedians of the world.”
Williams was a key figure in the development of African-American entertainment. In an age when racial inequality and stereotyping were commonplace, he became the first black American to take a lead role on the Broadway stage, and did much to push back racial barriers during his long career. Fellow vaudevillian W.C. Fields, who appeared in productions with Williams, described him as “the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew.”
Contrary to occasional assertions that Antigua was Bert Williams’ place of birth, the case for The Bahamas is now accepted by most scholars and biographers as irrefutable. The record is clear that Bert was born in Nassau, Bahamas on November 12, 1874 to Frederick Williams Jr. and his wife Julia (née Moncur), both of them natives of The Bahamas as well. This is verified by the Register of Births for St. Matthews Parish, Nassau, Bahamas (ref. entry # 24) showing November 12, 1874 at Nassau as the date and place of birth. Bert’s Bahamian origins are also confirmed by the (1920) 14th Census of the United States in which the “actor” Bert Williams working in the “theatre”, a resident of New York City, is described as a native of The Bahamas along with his mother, Julia Williams who was listed as living at the time of the Census with Bert and his wife, Lottie née Thompson (ref. enumeration dated 7 January 1920 for Enumeration District No.1353, Sheet No.8 B – lines 80, 81, 82). Bert’s father’s place of birth is also listed as The Bahamas in the same Census although he was by then deceased. (See also Bert’s father’s birth certificate of 5 October 1850, Registry of Births, Registry of Records, Nassau, Bahamas; also his death certificate 1 April 1912, NYMA (New York) showing his place of birth as The Bahamas. Bert’s paternal grandparents, Frederick Williams Sr. and Emeline Armbrister were natives of The Bahamas as well (ref. birth certificate for Bert’s father, ante). Moreover, Bert himself acknowledged his Bahamian origins in an interview published in New York World on 27 June 1903 following his command performance in London before the British king, when he said : “It was the proudest moment of my life…to appear before my sovereign, for I am British born, hailing from The Bahamas.” He again confirmed his Bahamian origins in an interview with the Chicago Record-Herald, 25 September 1910. Similarly, in his petition for naturalization as a citizen of the U.S., Bert listed his place of birth as The Bahamas.
At the age of 11, Bert permanently immigrated with his parents from The Bahamas to Florida and then to Riverside, California.
In 1910, Booker T. Washington wrote of Williams: “He has done more for our race than I have. He has smiled his way into people’s hearts; I have been obliged to fight my way.” Gene Buck, who had discovered W. C. Fields in vaudeville and hired him for the Follies, wrote to a friend on the occasion of Fields’ death: “Next to Bert Williams, Bill [Fields] was the greatest comic that ever lived.”
Phil Harris was apparently quite a fan of Williams, since he recorded “Nobody” and “Woodman, Woodman, Spare That Tree” in late 1936 and early 1937, both big hits of Williams.
In 1940, Duke Ellington composed and recorded “A Portrait of Bert Williams,” a subtly crafted tribute. In 1978, in a memorable turn on a Boston Pops TV special, Ben Vereen performed a tribute to Williams, complete with appropriate makeup and attire, and reprising Williams’ high-kick dance steps, to such classic vaudeville standards as “Waitin’ for the Robert E. Lee”.
In World War II, the United States liberty ship SS Bert Williams was named in his honor.
The 1980 Broadway musical Tintypes featured “I’m a Jonah Man”, a song first popularized by Williams in 1903.
Johnny Cash covered William’s song Nobody on his album American III: Solitary Man released in 2000.
In 1996, Bert Williams was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame.
JUNE IS #CARIBBEAN AMERICAN HERITAGE MONTH. I AM HONORED TO CELEBRATE THOSE WHO PAVED THE WAY FOR ME AND OTHERS. I’M A MULTI-ISLAND GIRL WITH FAMILY FLOWING IN SEVERAL NATIONS BUT ALL A WE IS ONE. TUNE IN TO CELEBRATE AND SHARE OR TAG! INBOX WHO YOU FEEL OUGHT TO BE HIGHLIGHTED!
CARIBBEAN HERITAGE MONTH: BERT WILLIAMS
CARIBBEAN AMERICAN HERITAGE MONTH WITH THIA