Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Camilla Williams: African American Opera Pioneer (1919-2012)

Camilla Williams with her
mentor Geraldine Farrar
during Williams' debut in
Madama Butterfly, May 1946.
The Amistad Research Center's staff was saddened to learn of the passing of pioneering opera diva Camilla Williams, who died at her home in Bloomington, Indiana, this past Sunday. Williams was a lyric soprano who was credited with being the first African American woman to hold a regular position with a leading United States opera company. Her accolades were many and well-deserved, but she was best known for her performances in the title role in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and was a protégé of the creator of the role, Geraldine Farrar. Williams toured internationally throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa beginning in 1950. After retiring from opera in 1971, she taught at Brooklyn College, Bronx College, and Queens College before becoming the first African American professor of voice at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music. A tribute to Williams can be found on the school's website.

Williams preparing for the role
of Mimi in La Boheme, 1947.
In 2011, Williams' autobiography entitled The Life of Camilla Williams, African American Classical Singer and Diva was published by The Edwin Mellen Press. According to Amistad's Director of Library and Reference Services, Christopher Harter, Williams was thrilled to see the publication of what she proudly called "my book." "Ms. Williams and I spoke on the telephone last year and she was pleased that her autobiography had recently been published, but she wanted me to make sure Amistad had a copy in its library!" Not only is the Amistad Research Center pleased to own a copy of the book, but the Camilla Williams papers are one of the premier collections at the Center. The collection not only provides a rich view into Williams' life and accomplishments, but it is an amazing resource for the study of African American classical and operatic singers.

Flyer for the NAACP's Freedom Spectacular
with Camilla Williams listed as a performer, 1964.
Posted by Christopher Harter

(Images from the Camilla Williams Papers. May not be reproduced without permission.)

Friday, January 27, 2012

Current exhibition at Amistad: Athletics and the African American Experience

At Amistad, we’re starting off this Olympics year fittingly – with an in-house exhibition on athletics within the wider context of American social history.  The exhibition showcases correspondence, photographs, scrapbooks, etc. on great athletes such as Jesse Owens, Althea Gibson, and Jackie Robinson; the Negro Leagues; the collection on Southwestern Athletic Conference sports of noted sportswriter Russell Stockard; and, perhaps lesser known, proposed boycotts of the 1968 Summer Olympics that influenced John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s famed Black Power salute protest atop the podium in Mexico City.

Well before the 1968 Olympics, a global boycott of the forthcoming games began to organize in response to the International Olympic Committee’s vote to readmit South Africa into the Olympic games. The American Committee on Africa helped to spearhead a campaign promoting a mass boycott of the games based on the International Olympic Committee’s decision, which seems in stark opposition to the Olympic Charter’s ban on racially discriminatory practices. After this widespread public outcry, the IOC ultimately reversed its position, and the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games went on as scheduled.

(Hall of Famers in their respective sports, Joe Morgan and Jerry West are among the signatories in the Amistad exhibition.)
In a year which saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the violent Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the ascendance of George Wallace as a viable presidential candidate, it is no surprise that the 1968 Olympics were also highly politicized by American athletes.   

The possibility of an Olympic boycott by African American athletes emerged on the campus of San Jose State University, where sociologist Harry Edwards decried the accomplishments of Black athletes amidst wider social inequity: “What value is it to a black man to win a medal if he returns to a hell in Harlem.”  Lee Evans, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith – all members of the SJSU track team – were among the most vocal of the boycott’s supporters.
(Tommie Smith and John Carlos, among the signatories above from the San Jose State University track team, seized their moment months later atop the Olympic podium after placing first and second, respectively, in the 200m sprint.)

Though the threat of boycotts to the Olympics and other protests amidst racism in America and around the world never manifested in a widespread boycott, they did foreshadow one of the most poignant, overtly political, statements ever made in a sporting context.  The petition above demonstrate that Smith and Carlos’ statement of defiance – raising their fists and refusing the look at the American flag as the “Star-Spangled Banner” played – was not a spontaneous, impulsive reaction.

The contributions of Smith and Carlos, as well as many sporting greats before them, are chronicled in the exhibition at Amistad.  The exhibition, "More Than Just a Game: Athletics and the African American Experience," will be on display in the Center's reading room and exhibition gallery through March 29.

Posted by Andrew Salinas

(Images from the American Committee on Africa records, Amistad Research Center. May not be reproduced without permission.)

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Origins of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

As we approach Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the staff of the Amistad Research Center would like to highlight one of the recently processed collections at the Center, the Lloyd Davis Papers, which provide insight into the foundation of the upcoming holiday.

Lloyd Davis (1928-2007) was a proponent of equal opportunities, a civil rights activist, a fair housing advocate, and longtime senior adviser for the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. He also served as the first vice president and chief operating officer of the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change and as Executive Director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission.

Lloyd Davis, undated photograph
After graduating from Chicago's Tilden Technical High School in 1946, Davis enlisted in the United States Army. He was assigned to the 6th Armed Division at Fort Leonard, Missouri, where he was responsible for the administration of five companies, the supervision of a staff of non-commissioned officers, and the administration of the first program of racial integration at Fort Leonard.

Shortly after graduating from De Paul University, Davis enrolled in graduate school at Loyola University of Chicago in 1958. After graduating from Loyola, he accepted a position as Assistant Director of the New Haven Redevelopment Agency. He also served as the Director of the Dixwell Redevelopment and Renewal Project; the project mission was to relocate 928 families and demolish and renovate 382 structures in New Haven, Connecticut. Davis began his career with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1965 as an Intergroup Relations Specialist. His primary duties included the selection and planning of urban renewal areas, as well as determining the impact of urban renewal projects on cities.

In 1979, Davis became the first vice president and chief operating officer of the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which had been founded by Coretta Scott King in 1968. In this capacity, Davis helped plan the building of the Martin Luther King Historic Site and lobbied Congress to establish the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday, which was celebrated for the first time in 1986. Davis also created a federal commission to promote, oversee, and raise money for the King Holiday.

The Amistad Research Center processed the Davis papers under a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources. This collection reflects Davis’ work as a housing advocate and documents his tenure as the chief operating officer of the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change. The papers include correspondence, photographs, programs, pamphlets, and biographical information, and document Davis' efforts to preserve and celebrate the legacy of Dr. King.

Posted by Christopher Harter

(Image from the Lloyd Davis Papers, Amistad Research Center. May not be reproduced without permission.)