Monthly Archives: August 2011

Bert Williams & George Walker: The Early Years

Although their names are seldom recognized today, Bert Williams and George Walker were the first African-American superstars. Years before blues 78s spun on wind-up Victrolas, Williams & Walker were packing theaters on Broadway, writing hit songs, making records, and cakewalking their way into American culture. Their images appeared on sheet music, cigarette ads, postcards, and in newspapers and magazines. Coverage of their 1903 command performance for England’s royal family was followed with rapt attention back home. After Walker’s death in 1911, Williams carried on alone, becoming one of the brightest stars of the Ziegfeld Follies. In a 1910 article in American Magazine, Booker T. Washington, author of Up From Slavery, claimed that Williams “has done more for our race than I have. He has smiled his way into people’s hearts.” Bert Williams’ theatrical triumphs came at a high personal price, though: This highly intelligent, dignified man was destined to spend his career wearing burnt-cork blackface and playing longstanding racial stereotypes. Continue reading