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Main > Entertainment > Bert Williams

Bert Williams (November 12, 1875 - March 4, 1922) was the pre-eminent Black entertainer of his era and one of the most popular comedians for all audiences of his time. He was by far the best-selling black recording artist before 1920.

Williams was a key figure in the development of African-American music. In an age when racial inequality and stereotyping were an accepted part of life, he became the first black American to take a lead role on the Broadway stage, and did much to push back racial barriers during his career. Fellow vaudevillian W.C. Fields, who appeared in productions with Williams, described him as "the funniest man I ever saw - and the saddest man I ever knew."

In his only known essay, Williams wrote: "People sometimes ask me if I would not give anything to be white. I answer . . . most emphatically, "No." How do I know what I might be if I were a white man? I might be a sandhog, burrowing away and losing my health for $8 a day. I might be a streetcar conductor at $12 or $15 a week. There is many a white man less fortunate and less well-equipped than I am. In fact, I have never been able to discover that there was anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have often found it inconvenient . . . in America."

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