Beautiful New York

A Celebration of the City

The Top 100 Greatest New Yorkers — #65

Bert Williams (1874 – 1922)

65 Bert Williams

The first black performer to star on Broadway, Bert Williams, was also the first to star in the Ziegfeld Follies. His enormously popular and lucrative minstrelsy lampooned the racism that it perpetuated on the surface with just enough subtlety to prevent white critics from recognizing the double ironies. Unfortunately, several black critics were also unaware of Williams’ low key efforts to indict the fashionable attitudes of the day, while remaining employed and in demand, both on stage and in the recording studio, ultimately becoming the bestselling and highest paid black recording artist of his day. Lacking the temperament of an overt activist, the quiet and reserved Williams eventually made a grand gesture for equality, walking into the segregated bar at the Astor Hotel. When told he would be charged $50 for a drink, he produced as wad of $100 bills from his pocket and demanded “Buy everyone a drink.” Williams’ struggle of balancing institutional racism with financial and critical success, led W.C. Fields to describe him as “The funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew.” After his untimely death at age 47, Williams continued to make history, becoming the first black recipient of a private funeral at the Grand Lodge of the Freemasons in Manhattan.

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