In which I spotlight an entertainer who made (largely untold) history
My preexisting plan for this week’s post is serendipitously harmonious given the impending arrival of a Black woman in the White House. Because on this date in 1878, the White House welcomed its first Black musical performer, Marie Selika Williams.
Williams, née Smith, was a coloratura soprano who had been born in Natchez, Mississippi circa 1849 and traveled around mostly the western United States studying voice with the funding of some wealthy patrons. The idea of a Black artist having the support system to do this at the time is remarkable in and of itself. Especially having come out of the antebellum South. Even so, she underwent her training in “newer” areas of the country like San Francisco and Chicago and was not really received on the East Coast until after she had established herself thoroughly (and as one-half of a couple with operatic baritone Sampson Williams).
And what more thorough establishment than when she was invited to the White House to sing for President Rutherford B. Hayes and First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much about the naming of rooms in the White House, but she performed in the Green Room, which I think nicely foreshadows the now-common term for preparatory spaces in theatres and venues. Anyway, the gig apparently went pretty well: she went on to perform up and down the East Coast, playing Philadelphia’s Academy of Music later that year and New York’s Steinway Hall the next year. She and Sampson toured Europe and the United States extensively over the following decade, even giving a concert for Queen Victoria in 1883. Personally would’ve loved to hear their rendition of “I Got You Babe.”
In all seriousness, she did end up with a signature song, E. W. Mulder’s “Polka Staccato,” which earned her the nickname “Queen of Staccato.” As any singer knows, staccato singing—particularly solo—takes exceptional strength and precision. She was obviously a distinguished talent in her day.
Which is funny, because I hadn’t heard of her until recently, say within the last few months. You’d think, in some vein of my interdisciplinary studies, that I would have come across a byte of information about an African-American woman making inroads in the fine arts, settling in a notorious social battleground like Ohio, sharing a bill with two other Black women singers at Carnegie Hall, and going into business for herself teaching private lessons in New York City in her widowhood. But no.
The one I did hear about—thanks to my family, not my formal education—was her successor Marian Anderson, who is often remembered for surmounting significant resistance and pushback to perform in certain spaces and claim legitimacy as an artist. To be fair, there is a more comprehensive body of work concerning her because of her era. I love Anderson and don’t think we even study her as much as we could. All the more true of Williams. If you also had never heard of her, here is your byte of information for the day, and your reminder that before there was Marian there was Marie.
Pass it on.
Image: photograph by African-American pianist and activist Maud Cuney-Hare