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Maria Selika Williams
*On this date in 1849, we celebrate the birth of Marie Selika Williams. She was a Black concert vocalist and educator.
Marie Selika was born in Natchez, Mississippi. Shortly after her birth, Selika’s family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where, as a child, she began to study music, thanks to the support of a wealthy local benefactor. While still in her early 20s, she moved to San Francisco, California, to study with Signora G. Bianchi, under whose guidance she debuted as a concert soprano in 1876. Soon afterward, Selika met and married a fellow operatic artist, baritone Sampson Williams, also known as Signor Velosko, the Hawaiian tenor.
On November 17, 1878, with the influence of Frederick Douglass, Marie Selika Williams performed in the Green Room of the White House for an audience that included President Rutherford Hayes and his wife. Her performance included Verdi’s “Ernani, involami,” Thomas Moore’s “The Last Rose of Summer,” Harrison Millard’s “Ave Maria,” and Richard Mulder’s “Staccato Polka.” Her husband, Sampson Williams, also sang, by popular request, the well-known ballad “Far Away” by Bliss.
In the years following her White House performance, she continued to tour nationally, performing for all Black audiences. She combined her national performances with two tours of Europe, one from 1882-1885, where she gave a command performance in October of 1883 at St. James Hall for Queen Victoria, and another from 1887-1892. She also toured the West Indies.
Despite Williams’ successful career and status as the leading Black prima donna of her time, she struggled to obtain good professional management, even occasionally managing her concerts. The racism of the era prevented Black artists from being easily accepted in anything other than Minstrel shows, and Blacks were not welcomed to the American operatic stage until the 1930s. As Williams approached mid-life in the 1890s, she continued to tour but began to spend more and more time at her home in Cleveland, Ohio, where she opened a music studio and taught.
After her husband died in 1911, she retired from the stage, and in 1916, at age 67, she accepted a teaching position at New York’s Martin-Smith School of Music. Marie Selika Williams died in 1937 in New York at 87.