Bert Williams: There was more to vaudevillian than meets the eye

Comedian and actor W.C. Fields once called Bert Williams the funniest man he ever saw and the saddest man he ever knew.

What is certain, however, is that Egbert Austin Williams, a Bahamian-American entertainer, was one of the nation’s greatest vaudevillian performers and comedians.

At the same time, he also faced racial prejudices from whites as he toured the nation and disdain from some African-Americans for donning burnt cork as blackface.

Williams was born on Nov. 12, 1874, in Nassau, Bahamas, and at age 11 moved to Florida with his family and, later, to Riverside, Calif.

Williams always had a knack for entertaining classmates and friends.

He ran away from home at age 16 to join a medicine show but then returned home, according to the Encyclopedia of World Biography.

He wanted to attend Stanford University, but the tuition was not affordable, so to earn money, he joined the minstrel shows, which were extremely popular at the time.

In 1893, Williams signed on with Martin and Selig’s Mastodon Minstrels, where he met George Walker.

The two would be partners for the next 16 years.

RELATEDEartha Kitt: From small town to international stages

Walker was the nattily dressed straight man, while Williams was his bumbling but quick-witted sidekick.

Their best-known shows included Victor Herbert’s “The Gold Bug,” “Abyssinia” and “In Dahomey.”

According to the Encyclopedia of World Biography, Walker retired in 1908. Williams, though, continued his career, starring in Broadway’s “Mr. Load of Koal” in 1910.

RELATEDFannie Lou Hamer: ‘Sick and tired’ sharecropper became political force

The next year, he signed on with the Ziegfeld Follies as its only black performer.

Williams made roughly 80 recordings from 1901 to 1922.

He died on March 4, 1922, in New York of pneumonia and heart disease.

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Living

Daniela Vega makes ‘A Fantastic Woman’ truly lovely
Daniela Vega makes ‘A Fantastic Woman’ truly lovely

There’s an interaction in the middle of Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” that perfectly describes the film’s conflict and asserts its core thesis. Two women meet in a downtown Santiago parking garage to exchange the car of the recently deceased Orlando (Francisco Reyes). It’s the first meeting...
Teen tantrums require a one-two ‘punch’ of authority
Teen tantrums require a one-two ‘punch’ of authority

Q: When our daughter, an only child, turned 13 and entered the eighth grade, it was like a switch was flipped. Almost overnight, she went from being a sweet, respectful and obedient child who had never given us any serious problems to being petulant, sassy, and often belligerent. She wants nothing to do with us anymore and makes that perfectly clear...
Female-driven ‘Annihilation’ is singularly adventurous
Female-driven ‘Annihilation’ is singularly adventurous

Sometimes cinematic adaptations are conversations with source material rather than direct representations. No recent film more exemplifies this idea than Alex Garland’s bold, metaphysical and just plain weird “Annihilation,” adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s book, the first in his “Southern Reach” trilogy. The result...
‘Game Night’ needed to take more Risk with comedy
‘Game Night’ needed to take more Risk with comedy

There’s no question the undisputed winner in the new comedy “Game Night” is the generally dependable Rachel McAdams. The infectious energetic and unfiltered exuberance she brings to the role of the super competitive Annie — one of a group of best friends who get together on a regular basis to play parlor and board games &mdash...
Finding ‘Me Time’ in quiet chapel
Finding ‘Me Time’ in quiet chapel

My friend’s little girl, Lucy, 12, was doing homework in my living room, while Fuzzy the cat meowed loudly for attention. “Let’s go to the grocery store,” I suggested, “and get your family some fixings for supper.” Her mom’s in the hospital prior to heart surgery, and I’d signed up to provide the family...
More Stories