Broadway Pioneer, Comedian, Entertainer
Bert Williams was a Bahamian comedian, entertainer, and Vaudeville performer. He was the first black performer to receive a lead role on Broadway.
One of the most popular comedians of his time, Mr. Williams is known for being the first black man to have a leading role in a film, Dark Jubilee, in 1914. Prior to 1920, Mr. Williams was the best-selling black recording artist in the world.
In an age when racial inequality was commonplace, Mr. Williams became a key figure in the development of African-American entertainment.
Born in Nassau in 1874, Mr. Williams emigrated to Florida, then California, at the age of eleven. By the time he was nineteen, Mr. Williams had joined various West Coast minstrel shows where he performed song-and-dance numbers, comic dialogues, skits, and humorous songs.
That same year, in San Francisco, Mr. Williams met his eventual long-time performing partner, George Walker.
After sixteen years as a duo, Mr. Williams returned to his roots as a solo performer. In 1910, following success in Flo Ziegfeld’s Follies, Mr. Williams signed an unprecedented three-year contract worth the equivalent of $1.5 million today.
In 1922, at the age of 47, Mr. Williams passed away after developing pneumonia.
Despite the diagnosis, he continued to perform up until his death. His legacy as a comedic performer and racial barrier-breaker has been acknowledged by many of his contemporaries, including Booker T. Washington, W.C. Fields, and Johnny Cash. The World War II-era liberty ship, SS Burt Williams, was named in his honour.