Bert Williams (Egbert Austin Williams) (1874 – 1922)
Born in the West Indies, Bert Williams was a black entertainer appearing as a song-and-dance clown in the minstrel/tramp tradition of McIntyre and Heath. He was also an excellent pantomimist. His contemporaries considered him the greatest entertainer of his generation. Because of his talent, he broke through many racial barriers for black entertainers. His first great success came as a partner to George Walker, who was also a black entertainer. The two popularised the dance known as the Cakewalk. Early vaudeville was segregated, but Walker and Williams were able to break into big time white vaudeville as headliners.
They also formed a black production company creating shows with black casts that performed on Broadway and toured America and Europe. The success of the Walker and Williams productions significantly influenced black performers’ acceptance on Broadway and the vaudeville stage. When Walker passed away in 1908, Williams continued with a solo clown act interspersing monologues, songs, and pantomimes. He joined the cast of the Ziegfield Follies two years later, and was in every Follies edition for the rest of his career. In addition to breaking down barriers for blacks in vaudeville and on Broadway, he was the first black performer to star in a motion picture, and his recordings with Walker are the earliest documented appearance by blacks on phonograph records. The dignity he gave his tramp clown character humanized the minstrel caricature revealing the humanity beneath the stereotype.
Bert Williams was inducted into the 1996 Clown Hall of Fame