Bert Williams Place of Birth

ETA: (July 18th 2018) Cleaning up this post as much as I can because facts matter. So that’s why the title “Bert Williams Born in Antigua” has been adjusted to Bert Williams Place of Birth – from an assertion to a discussion because we have our belief on this here in Antigua (The now dormant Performing Arts Society of Antigua and Barbuda even once had an award in his name and, I believe, that Tourism may have used him in marketing) but different sources say different things. However, there does seem to be some consensus if not certainty.

Morrison-BertWilliams

In the original post I quoted this article which referenced people who could attest to Bert’s place of birth being Antigua:

“During my subsequent research on Bert Williams, I discovered that several countries had claimed that Bert was born there. Bermuda has claimed him. The Bahamas have claimed him and Jamaica has claimed him. Can one man be born in four places ? No!

I have read where Bert has said that he was born in Swetes Village in Antigua.”

So writes Selvyn Walter in the May 30th 2013 edition of his Of Dis ‘n Dat column, entitled Who then is an Antiguan? Read it in full here.

I also shared this link:

Also read my thoughts on the Antigua-less version of Williams’ life in Caryl Philips’ Dancing in the Dark in my book blog here – the jumps are temperamental though, so you may need to scroll.

I then reported this:

ETA (May 29th 2018): Wikepedia says no. Do your own research but here’s a link to Wikepedia’s take on the Antigua v. Bahamas debate which, if the verifying sources check out (and I can’t independently confirm that they do), at minimum puts a question mark on Antigua’s claim.

So since this post I’ve been having discussions with a researcher who shared some other links with me and doing some additional research of my own.

First, who is Bert Williams.

The Encyclopedia of World Biography sums him up as a Bahamas-born African-American comedian and singer who lived between 1874–1922, and in that time “was a phenomenally popular figure in the field of American theatrical entertainment during his heyday in the first two decades of the twentieth century.” He was bar-none a pioneer in American entertainment – keep in mind that this was the time of black face and exclusion and yet he carved out a space for himself as a Black man albeit a Black man in black face given the very limited opportunities. He didn’t just play the game though. The cake walk dance for which Williams and Walker (his partner, their brand) were famed was “a comic black imitation of white society dances that in turn became popular among white audiences”. Am I the only one seeing a similarity between this and The Fresh Prince’s Carlton dance (in the 1990s)? Anyway, he, also, wrote his own songs, and created his own opportunities mounting all black theatrical productions, which were groundbreaking in America, first of their kind, and which toured England and was hugely influential in America. It’s noteworthy as well that he was the first black star of the established and renowned Broadway theatrical revue Ziegfeld Follies. Making him a first for Broadway.

No wonder we all want to claim him, right? But as Philips’ book Dancing in the Dark attests, it all came at a price.

But back to the point of this post-update. The Encyclopedia of World Biography goes on to assert the Antigua connection through his mother, Julia Monceur, who was from Antigua. (which totally counts). Black History Now says she was the daughter of a clergyman from Antigua and that his father was a sometime sailor and waiter, but that, yes, he was born in the Bahamas. Williams grandfather on his father’s side was a Danish diplomat in Antigua, according to the American Heritage website.

Both the Encyclopedia of World Biography and the American Heritage website assert that Bahamas is his place of birth. But in discussion with a local researcher, I was pointed to another source which said, ‘Over the years, conflicting details have been published about Bert Williams’ beginnings. He was born Egbert Austin Williams on November 12, 1874, in either New Providence, Nassau, or Antigua, West Indies. In her seminal 1970 book Nobody: The Bert Williams Story, Ann Charters described, “His paternal grandfather had been Svend Erick Williams, the Danish consul in Antigua, who married a West Indian girl who was three-quarters Spanish and one-quarter African. Their only child was Frederick Williams, Bert’s father, who married a West Indian quadroon named Julia Moncuer.” Tall, broad-shouldered, and light-skinned, Bert was raised in the British West Indies until 1885. His parents moved to Riverside, California, where his father worked as a train conductor. In his youth Bert became skilled on banjo, piano, and other instruments. He graduated from Riverside High School and briefly attended Stanford University. For a while he worked San Francisco’s rough Barbary Coast with a song-and-dance act.’ – Jas Obrecht Music Archives.

You see my confusion.

In Conversations with Caryl Philips (p. 144, edited by Renee T. Schatteman, published 2009, University Press of Mississippi), the Dancing in the Dark author is quoted as saying, “there are two biographies of him…the most fundamental fact that a biographer has to pin down is where somebody was born, and these two biographies both arrived at different places: one said Antigua and one said the Bahamas…I am 99.9 percent sure he was born in the Bahamas, and I think that is an established fact now.”

Certainly authorities in historical research like Henry Louis Gates Jr. (co-editor with Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham of African American Lives from Oxford University Press, 2004) assert that he is Bahamian, son of Frederick Williams Jr., a waiter, and Julia Monceur. And the Biographical Appendix (P. 526) The Papers of Will Rogers edited by Arthur Frank Wertheim and Barbara Bair explains that “Williams protected some of the details of his family’s private life from public knowledge, and as a result there is some dispute among biographers over his birthplace and family history. His parents, Frederick Williams, Jr., and Julia Monceur Williams, named him Egbert Austin Williams. It is most often said that he was born in the city of Nassau, on New Providence (Bahamas)…others give his birthplace as Antigua…through his paternal grandparents he was of mixed Danish, Spanish, and African heritage. His grandfather, Frederick K. or Svend Eric Williams, was Danish. A former diplomat, he was a landowner in the Caribbean. He married Emiline Arymbrister, a woman of Spanish and African descent, who was from the West Indies, and they had a son Frederick Williams, Jr. Frederick married Julia Monceur.”

So there you have it. He has Antiguan roots (i.e. he people come from yah) if not fixed Antiguan birth (?) That’s about as much time as I can devote to this. Do your own research. If you find a source more definitive than any listed, be sure to share.

The image used in this post is credited to William McKenzie Robinson and archived at Broadway Photographs.

As with all content on Wadadli Pen, except otherwise noted, this is written by Antiguan and Barbudan writer Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Oh Gad!, Musical Youth, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight 10th Anniversary Edition and Other Writings, With Grace, and Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure; also a freelance writer, editor, writing coach and workshop facilitator). Excerpting, reblogging, linking etc. is fine, but PLEASE do not lift ANY content (images or text) wholesale from this site without asking first and crediting the creator of that work and/or copyright holder. All Rights Reserved. If you like the content here follow or recommend the blog, also, check out my page on WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. Thank you.

 

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