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Camilla Williams: The Jewel of Southside VA

I am so thankful that a local news station reported on the exhibit honoring Camilla Williams at the Danville History and Fine Arts Museum in Danville recently.

Before that I had not ever heard of her. I have written articles on various people in the past year who have broken glass ceilings and shattered expectations-Patricia Bath, James Weldon Johnson, Maggie Lena Walker. Camilla Williams can be added to that list.

On October 18, 1919 Camilla Williams was born and raised in Danville, to Fannie Carey and Cornelius Williams, a laundress and chauffeur. Being the youngest of her four siblings Mary, Helen and Cornelius, Camilla grew up in a poor neighborhood where music was an important part of her family. Williams’ parents instilled into their daughter an appreciation for church, music and education during her early years.

Camilla, by the age of 8, enjoyed playing the piano as well as singing at school and at Calvary Baptist Church. In 1937 Camilla graduated from John M. Langston High School. Later she attended Virginia State College, now Virginia State University, and was named outstanding graduate of the class of 1941. That same year, Camilla received her BA degree in music education.

After graduation, she taught third grade in Danville for a few years but, left to study music in Philadelphia with Marion Szekely Freschl. One of her former professors started a fund to pay for her lessons with Ms. Freschl. In addition, she earned a Marian Anderson Award in 1943 and 1944 continuing to receive honors in vocal competitions.

Eventually, Williams started performing on the coast to coast RCA radio network in 1944. In 1946 she made her debut with the New York City Opera in the title role in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly becoming the first African American to do so. The New York Times called her performance “an instant and pronounced success”. While with the NYC Opera, Camilla performed in numerous productions such as Mimi in Puccini’s LaBoheme and the title role in Verdi’s Aida. Her career spanned throughout the United States and Europe touring with various opera companies.

In between performing in operas, Camilla married Charles. T. Beavers, a civil rights lawyer who worked closely with Malcolm X, but died in 1969. In 1951 she performed a recording of Bess in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess but, felt that the opera should be better staged to portray contemporary African American life so she refrained from acting on stage in a production. Subsequently, in 1954 Camilla became the first African American to sing in a major role with the Vienna State Opera. Furthermore, she toured Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

In 1963, Camilla sang “The Star Spangled Banner” at the March on Washington at the White House and at the Lincoln Memorial before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech. Moreover, she was a soloist with the Royal Philharmonic and Vienna Symphony to name a few.

Camilla never abandoned teaching. Brooklyn College, Talented Unlimited and Danville History and Fine Arts Museum, received her expertise as an instructor. The opera star was the first African American professor of voice at Indiana University in 1977 and taught there until 1997. The position of Professor Emeritus with the university can be added to her accolades, but she continued teaching privately. Also, Camilla was the first African American to teach at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China.

Unfortunately, Camilla Williams died in Bloomington, Indiana Jan. 29, 2012. Camilla received numerous honors during her illustrious career including in 1996 an Outstanding African American Singer/Pioneer award from Harvard University and in 2007 one of eight women honored by the Library of Virginia during Women’s History Month as part of Virginia Women in History project.

What a jewel of a talent and dedication to passing on the love of music and performing to the next generation.

Judy Moore is a tour guide at The Central High Museum living in Wylliesburg and can be reached at ju.mo39@live.com.