The Light-Skinned Dude in Blackface

Bert Williams and George Walker

The light-skinned fella who wore blackface? Yes, that would be Bert Williams, the fellow on the left in the photo below. Williams’ comedic genius was praised by W.C. Fields. He was the best-paid vaudeville comedian at one point in the early 20th century.

By some reports he was born in Antigua, by others Nassau, Bahamas. Sources agree that Egbert Austin “Bert” Williams was born in 1874 and passed away at the age of 47 in New York, N.Y.

In our modern age the discussions and arguments about blackface and minstrelsy can seem almost endless and at times bursting with emotion. Whatever your point of view about blackface, there’s no getting around the fact that it was an important part of the performing arts in America, and part of the Black experience.

The first clip below is an early tune featuring Williams’ partner George Walker, who died in his late 30s in 1911. Walker and Williams met in San Francisco and formed their comedic team in 1893. By the late ’90s they had taken their act to New York where they were hugely successful as “Two Real Coons.” In 1903, they appeared in “In Dahomey,” the first Black musical on Broadway.

After Zeigfeld’s Follies of 1919, Williams’ popularity took a dive, but he kept working. In late 1921, Williams battled pneumonia, but kept working. In 1922, Williams was performing in Detroit when he fell ill during a performance and collapsed. Less than a week later, on March 4, Williams died in New York. His funeral in Harlem was attended by thousands. Williams was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

Commentary on Bert Williams by contemporary comics, from Robert Townsend’s documentary, “Why We Laugh.”

Click image for video.

Wiki: Bert Williams

The 20th century would become an amazing century for Black comedians. On this 8th day of Black History Month, I commend Bert Williams for setting it off.


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