IU unveils portrait of first black voice professor Camilla Williams


Gerard Erley wanted his portrait of Camilla Williams to be grand in both manner and size.

“Something befitting a diva,” he said.

Williams certainly fit the original meaning of that word. She was as pioneering opera singer who, in 1977, became the first black voice professor at Indiana University. And while she wasn’t known for being difficult to work with, as contemporary definitions of the word diva suggest, she was remembered for her ornate appearance.

“How was it possible, at that age, she had that much jewelry, including ankle bracelets?” said Marietta Simpson, IU professor of voice, recalling the first time she met Williams.

Simpson and Erley were among five people who spoke during the dedication and unveiling ceremony for a portrait of Williams. The painting was larger than all the people who spoke Wednesday in the Indiana Memorial Union’s East Lounge. That’s where it will be hung, among portraits of other influential IU women.

The portrait of Williams was commissioned as part of an IU initiative called Bridging The Visibility Gap. The idea is to bring unknown and underappreciated stories to light.

In her opening remarks, Provost Lauren Robel said Williams was born in 1919 to a chauffeur and laundress in Danville, Virginia. Williams broke the color barrier at the New York City Opera in 1946 when she landed the title role in “Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.”

“You can’t imagine the difficulties that needed to be overcome for that to take place,” said Charles Webb, dean emeritus of the IU Jacobs School of Music.

As part of the civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Williams sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. She performed throughout the U.S. and Europe with some of the world’s leading opera companies until her retirement from opera in 1971.

Williams’ accomplishments seemed to be matched only by her attire. Simpson said during that first meeting, Williams looked like she had just stepped off the runway of a Paris fashion show.

Laurie Burns McRobbie, wife of IU President Michael McRobbie, said Williams was the only person she met that was truly dripping in pearls.

Erley painted Williams wearing pearls, earrings and a fur wrap. One hand is touching her necklace and the other is resting on a piano.

Before her death in January 2012, Williams was honored by the Library of Virginia during Women’s History Month. In 2009, the New York City Opera and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture celebrated her with “A Tribute to Camilla Williams.” That same year, she also received the IU President’s Medal for Excellence.

Simpson said she’ll remember Williams as a woman of great beauty, character and faith.

“Every door Camilla Williams walked through, she held open for others to walk through after her,” Simpson said.