State and local officials gathered Monday morning at a ceremony to dedicate a state historical highway marker that highlights the contributions of Camilla Williams, a Danville native and an operatic soprano who in 1946 became the first African American woman to secure a contract with a major U.S. opera company.
The marker, issued by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, stands at 238 West End Ave.
“It is an absolute honor to celebrate and dedicate the historic marker of our hometown opera diva Camilla Williams on what would be her 102nd birthday,” said Karice Luck-Brimmer, who is a member of the Virginia Board of Historic Resources. “We commit ourselves to meaningful engagement with all Virginians, past and present, as we strive to fulfill our charge as stewards of Virginia’s long and rich history.”
In the past six years, 48 percent of the new markers involve African-American history, said Luck-Brimmer.
Williams (1919-2012) made her debut with the New York City Opera in the title role in Puccini's Madama Butterfly. She was an international touring soloist. She performed in Danville to raise funds for civil rights demonstrators, and sang the national anthem at the March on Washington before King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Felice McWilliams, a resident artist at the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History, talked about the museum’s permanent exhibition titled “Camilla Williams: Trailblazer. Activist. International Opera Star.” The exhibition highlights the relationship this New York City Opera diva had with her hometown, Danville, and explores the difficult path to frame in a racially divided South during the Civil Rights protests.
“We have the most beautiful collection of Camilla Williams artifacts and articles all about her life as a singer and her civil rights activities,” McWilliams said. “She was a teacher. She was a beautiful, educated, talented, classy woman. … Her story is something to see and hear.”
City Councilman Bryant Hood encouraged youth in the city to learn Danville’s history.
“Danville has a rich history of citizens here,” Hood said. “Her (Camilla Williams’) story never ceases to amaze me.”
Hood shared a quote from Williams, who said “Bite off more than you can chew, then chew it.”
City Councilman Sherman Saunders, who presided over the ceremony, added, “I am so proud of our city. Many of us remember where we were, and today we see where we are. A lot of positive history has been made in our city.”
Gayle Hunt Breakley, president of Alpha Kappa Alpha’s Alpha Phi Omega chapter, talked about how Camilla Williams, who was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, used her gift of music to influence the world.
“Camilla Williams served humanity in excellence as she reached across social, political, racial and gender barriers to touch the hearts of others with her gift of music,” Breakley said.
Also, on the program was Brenda Pinchback Fitz, whose mother, Louise, served as a historian for the Westmoreland Neighborhood Community. The family not only grew up in this neighborhood with Camilla Williams, but they attended Calvary Baptist Church with her.
On June 18, 2020, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources approved the highway marker, which resulted from Gov. Ralph Northam’s Black History Month K-12 Historical Marker Contest. Because of the pandemic, the dedication of the marker has been delayed until now.
Virginia’s historical highway marker program began in 1927 and is considered the oldest such program in the nation.
Text of the marker:
Camilla Ella Williams (1919-2012)
Camilla Williams, operatic soprano, grew up in Danville. In 1946 she became the first African American woman to secure a contract with a major U.S. opera company, making her debut in Madama Butterfly with the New York City Center Opera. Williams starred in Columbia Records’ recording of Porgy and Bess (1951), performed with the Vienna State Opera and other prominent companies, toured internationally as a soloist, and served as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department. In 1963 she performed in Danville to raise funds for civil rights demonstrators, and she sang the national anthem at the March on Washington before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.