Marie Selika Williams was considered one of the great coloratura sopranos of the late 19th century. As a leading singer of her day, she was the first African American woman to perform at the White House in 1878.
In The Negro Genius: A New Appraisal of the Achievement of the American Negro in Literature and the Fine Arts (1966) Benjamin Brawl writes:
“The Figaro of Paris said after a concert in that city: She has a strong voice of depth and compass and trills like a feathered songster. Her range is marvelous, and her execution and style of rendition show perfect cultivation. Her “Echo Song” cannot be surpassed. It was beyond any criticism, an artistic triumph rendering the most difficult intervals she not only gains the admiration of amateurs, but also that of professional musicians and critics. It is impossible to describe the effect of her voice. One must hear it to appreciate its thrilling beauty.”
It was a time of struggle for all women seeking professional lives. The road for African American women was even more difficult. Despite her reputation and talent, Marie Selika Williams had difficulty obtaining quality management. She was known to organize her own tours and concerts. Because black artists with classical training were not welcomed to the American operatic stage until the late 1930s, many went to Minstrel shows. Marie Selika Williams remained true to her training.
Like so many performers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, biographical details for Marie Selika Williams are scant. Following are among the few we know.
1-According to Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Marie Smith was born circa 1849 in Natchez, Mississippi. When she was still a young child, her family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio where a local benefactor paid for her musical education.
2-In her early 20s, she moved to San Francisco where she studied with Signora G. Bianchi. Still under his tutelage she made her debut as a concert soprano in 1876.
3-She studied the Italian method with Antonio Farini in Chicago. It is believed that is where she fell in love with fellow student, Sampson William. They later married and performed together across America, Europe and the West Indies. His stage name was Signor Velosko, the Hawaiian tenor.
4-She adopted the name Madame Marie Selika Williams for stage purposes. Selika was the name of the heroine of L’Africaine, Giacomo Meyerbeer’s 1865 opera. The name was popular in the black community. Check our post on Selika Lazevski who appeared to be a high-level horsewoman, probably performing in the esteemed circuses of Europe.
5-On November 18, 1878, just two years after her concert debut, Marie Selika Williams performed in the Green Room of the White House. (This was 15 years after Harriett Tubman helped lead a raid that freed more than 750 slaves.)
She was introduced to President Rutherford Hayes and First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes by Marshall Fred Douglass.
Washington Post, November 13, 1878:
Madame Selika at the White House
Last evening, by appointment, Madame Selika, the wonderful colored prima donna, called at the White House, accompanied by Frederick Douglass, and a few friends, and was introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Hayes. After a few moments conversation and rest, the Madame sang “Staccato Polka,” from Richard Mullard; Verdi’s “Ernami, Involami,” Thomas Moore’s “The Last Rose of Summer and “Ave Maria” by Harrison Millard. Mr. Williams, baritone, by request sang “Far Away” by Bliss. The several pieces showed to great advantage the remarkable power, sweetness and versatility of madame’s voice and accomplishments, the Staccato Polka especially proving her worthy of her title as “Queen of Staccato.” Each piece was heartily applauded. The singers were afterwards warmly congratulated by Mr. and Mrs. Hayes.
6-In the years following her performance at the White House, Williams continued to tour nationally performing primarily for all-black audiences.
7-In 1878 she performed at the Academy of Music and in 1879 at Steinway Hall in New York.
8-From 1882-1885 she and her husband toured Europe. In 1883 she gave a command performance at St. James Hall for Queen Victoria. In London on one occasion she appeared in a concert under the patronage of the Spanish minister.
9-From 1885 to 1891, Marie Selika Williams toured the United States with her husband.
10-In the 1890s, opened a music studio in Cleveland, Ohio but continued to tour.
11-In 1893, she and her husband performed at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
12-On October 12, 1896, Marie Selika Williams performed with Flora Baston and Sissieretta Jones at Carnegie Hall in New York.
After her husband’s death in 1911, Williams retired from the stage, In 1916 she began teaching at New York’s Martin-Smith School of Music. She died in 1937 in New York at the age of 87.
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