Camilla Ella Williams

Camilla Ella Williams, an African-American, was the youngest child of Cornelius Booker Williams (1875 – May 6, 1947) and Fannie Cary (September 28, 1888 – October 19, 1970). She was born and spent her early life in Danville then went on to become an opera star, one of the first black women to do so. She was honored by her hometown by having a city park named for her and by being named to the Danville Hall of Fame which was established by the Danville Museum in 1974. She was also honored by the Library of Virginia as one of Virginia’s Outstanding Women in History. Virginia State University bestowed an honorary doctorate on her in 1985, and Taylor-Williams Hall on its campus was named for her.

Miss Williams was born on October 18, 1919. A number of sources give various dates for her birth, including one as late as October 18, 1925, but both 1920 and 1930 census records clearly indicate that she was born in 1919. She was born into a family of modest means living at 326 Broad Street. Some references give her as the youngest of four, but she had only two confirmed siblings, a brother, Cornelius Booker, Jr., and a sister, Cornelia, but there were other children living in the household, namely Mary and Helen, which the 1920 census indicates were step daughters, her father having been previously married to a Sarah before marrying her mother, Fannie. Helen who married James Fultz in 1929 was living with Fannie in 1970 at the time of Fannie’s death. Camilla’s father was a chauffeur and butler for Dr. Julian M. Robinson, and her mother was a cook in the home of Rev. Dr. W. R. Laird, a Presbyterian minister. In notes she wrote for her entry into the first edition of Who’s Who in the World she wrote “My grandparents and parents were self-taught musicians, all of them sang and there was always music in our home. From this, at an early age, was born a desire to be a concert singer.” The members of her family were members of the black Calvary Baptist Church at 218 Holbrook Street where Alexander Cary, her maternal grandfather who had a deep bass voice, was a singer and choir leader. Miss Williams was singing in the church choir at the age of eight. Later her parents were members of Liberty Hill Baptist Church at 128 Lincoln Street in Almagro where both of their funerals were held prior to their burials in Oak Hill Cemetery.

Miss Williams was blessed with a sharp mind as well as an outstanding voice. She was Valedictorian of her 1937 graduating class at John M. Langston High School and was named outstanding graduate of the class of 1941 at Virginia State College. Upon graduation she taught third grade and was an instructor in music for one year at Westmoreland Elementary School in Danville before accepting a scholarship from the Philadelphia Alumni Association of Virginia State to come to Philadelphia for voice training. While there she worked as an usherette in a Philadelphia theater to support herself and also had assistance from Dr. Laird, her mother’s employer, and Mrs. May Talbott Crumpler, wife of Dr. Lawrence O. Crumpler, who was in charge of the clinic of Dan River Mills on the upper floor of the Dan River Personnel building for many years. During the early 1940s Miss Williams continued to win awards, including the Marion Anderson Award in 1943 and 1944, to sign recording contracts, and to appear as soloist with many noted orchestras including the Philadelphia Orchestra. During this period she attracted the attention of the former Metropolitan Opera star, Geraldine Farrar, who recognized her talent and befriended her. On May 15, 1946 Miss Williams made her debut with the City Center Opera Company in New York in the role of Madame Butterfly and became an instant success in this title role. In the following years she starred in many opera roles, appeared in concerts all over the world and performed before many dignitaries including six US Presidents. In April 1954 she became the first African American to sing a major role with the Vienna State Opera. In 1963 she sang, with accompanist George Malloy, the “Star Spangled Banner” at the White House and before 250,000 people in Washington, DC preceding Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. She also sang for Martin Luther King, Jr. at the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies. She made a tour of fourteen north and central African countries on an invitation from the State Department. She continued to accumulate awards and honors throughout her career. In 1957 she was the first black person to receive a key to the city of her birth, Danville, Virginia. She was listed in the first edition of Who’s Who in the World in 1972 and was honored as a “distinguished citizen” by Governor Lynwood Holton of Virginia.

Miss Williams married her childhood sweetheart from Danville, Charles T. Beavers, but continued to use her maiden name professionally. Mr. Beavers was a graduate of Purdue University and the New York University Law School and practiced law in New York where he and his wife lived until his death in 1970. He was one of the principal attorneys for civil rights leader Malcolm X and represented Hinton Johnson, police brutality victim, following the infamous beating that took place at the hands of police officers of New York City’s 28th precinct on April 26, 1957.

From 1970 to 1973 Miss Williams was Professor of Voice at Brooklyn College. She later taught at Bronx College and taught with Talent Unlimited, directed by Dr. John Motley. After her retirement from performing she taught at the City University of New York and later as a professor of voice at Indiana University where she served until 1997 while living in Bloomington, Indiana. She continued to live there after retiring and was honored by a resolution which states, “I, Mark Kruzan, Mayor of Bloomington, Indiana do hereby congratulate Camilla Ella Williams on receiving the Sagamore of the Wabash Award on February 27, 2010, and say Bravissima! To the Grand Dame of Bloomington.”

Miss Williams made a number of trips to Danville during her career. In 1963 she gave a concert at Loyal Baptist Church in support of the civil rights movement. In March 1970 when her benefactor, Mrs. May Crumpler, died Miss Williams sang at her funeral at Mount Vernon Methodist Church. On Monday, October 5, 1970, she presented the May Crumpler Memorial Concert at the City Armory auditorium with David Glazer, clarinetist and George Malloy, pianist, before an audience of approximately 1,500. The concert was sponsored by and was for the benefit of the YWCA building fund. There was a reception after the concert at the YMCA. The President of the YWCA, Margaret Wayland, introduced the performers at the concert.

Camilla’s mother continued to live at 326 Broad Street after her father died in 1947 until the house was demolished to make way for the widening of the street in the late 1960s. After the Broad Street house was demolished Miss Williams purchased a home for her mother at 1005 W. Stokes Street where she lived until her death in October 1970. The year 1970 brought a lot of sadness to Camilla because in that year her husband, her mother and her benefactor, Mrs. Crumpler, all died.

When Camilla’s father died in 1947 segregation was still very much in effect in Danville and it was unusual for black people to have obituaries published in the local newspapers, but his was, albeit only a six-line one with his name misstated as “Booker T. Williams”, and the caption,, “Singer’s Father Dies”. When her mother died in 1970 a much better obituary appeared in the Danville Register which gave her parents, her date and place of birth in Charlotte Court House and lists as survivors six grandchildren and ten great grandchildren, so there are probably people living today who can trace their heritage back to the Cornelius Booker Williams family. Some of the confusing factors in attempting to trace the genealogy of Camilla’s family are that her father apparently used the name Cornelius on some occasions and the name Booker on others. Her mother’s maiden name is sometimes given as Carey and at other times as Cary. Her mother’s obituary states that she had been a member of the Liberty Hill Baptist Church for more than 70 years which is in conflict with her reported membership in Calvary Baptist and her early life in Charlotte County. Other problems with names and dates and places sometimes occur and need careful documentation if they are to be resolved, but they do not take away from the many achievements of Camilla Williams during her lifetime. She will remain an honored native of the City of Danville for many years to come.

A public park bearing Miss Williams’ name was dedicated on June 26, 1974 on a site formerly known as Poor House Hill, an area of substandard housing which was cleared by a redevelopment project (GPS coordinates of the park are: N 36 degrees 35.560', W 079 degrees 24.138', Elevation 443'. Miss Williams was not present for the dedication due to prior commitments. In 1993 she attended the 200th birthday of the City celebration but did not perform due to unfortunate circumstances.

Camilla Williams Park

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