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Bert Williams, so long ago but still so very relevant

Sovereign State

In 1914, a perceptive critic for the Chicago Defender wrote, “Every time I see Mr. Bert Williams, the ‘distinguished colored comedian’, I wonder if he is not the patient repository of a secret sadness... Sorrow concealed, ‘like an oven stopped’, must burn his heart to cinders.”

Now that is writing.  Journalists beware and aware.

W.C. Fields called Bert Williams “the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest I ever knew.” 

Bert Williams and George Walker, two of the most successful comedians on the vaudeville circuit.  They kept exchanging parts.  One was the smart one; one the foil.  Until they got it right.  They played at the Columbia Exposition in 1893 Chicago in a play they wrote called “Dahomey”, which was one of the launching pads in Africa for the slave trade.  The irony?  There were no Blacks allowed in to the Expo, even though Frederick Douglass, who had been in Lincoln’s Cabinet, in the waning years of his life, and almost 30 years after the hack thespian/assassin Booth shot Honest Abe, tried to enter with Harriet Tubman and both were disallowed.  Also, of note, is where and when the first woman to play Aunt Jemima, Nancy Green, whipped up her special pancakes for the appreciative slave-addicted Crackers, mixing my starches there.

A quote from Williams:

“People sometimes ask me if I would not give anything to be white. I answer ... most emphatically, ‘No.’ How do I know what I might be if I were a white man? I might be a sandhog, burrowing away and losing my health for $8 a day. I might be a streetcar conductor at $12 or $15 a week. There is many a white man less fortunate and less well-equipped than I am. In fact, I have never been able to discover that there was anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have often found it inconvenient ... in America.”

 There are a couple of stories about Bert Williams, going into a gin mill with either Eddie Cantor or Al Jolson.  Probably the former.  Williams often appeared in blackface and Jolson of course came to fame singing “Mammy,” also in blackface.  (That word again.  Irony?) The white barkeep refused to serve Williams, who proceeded  to slap a $500 bill on the mahogany (I had a Jesuit ethics professor, of some rotundity, who told our class that that weekend he was going to Chicago to traverse The Mahogany Trail).  Said barkeep then dutifully served Williams.  What I cannot find record of is whether he left Sparky a gratuity.  Guesses?

Speaking of blackface, I just read that Ben Vereen of “Pippin” fame performed in blackface for Ronald Reagan. What?  And the governor of Virginia was at a party in what?

Eddie Cantor told the story of Bert in a St. Louis bar, ordering gin from a bartender reluctant to serve a Black man. Spikey frowned at Williams and said, “I’ll give you gin, but it’s $50 a glass.” Without hesitation, Bert took out his wallet and produced a $500 bill. “Give me ten of them,” he said. 

My belief?  He had some $1000 bills as well. When money was real.

Hattie MacDaniel of “Gone With the Wind” fame was criticized in the Black community for playing a maid. She said, “I’d rather get $700 a week playing a maid, then 7 dollars a week being one.”  When money was real.

From Williams’ priceless  song “Nobody”:

“When life seems full of clouds and rain

And I am full of nothin’ and pain

Who soothes my thumping, bumping brain?



When I was in that railroad wreck

And thought I’d cashed in my last check

Who took the engine off my neck?

Not a soul


Not Derek Chauvin, that’s for sure.

Has anyone remarked on “chauvinistic” yet? Had it been Georgia Floyd, would it have been different? 

Jim Crow, 2.0?

One of the few times the disgraced loser Trump told the truth is when he said that if everyone had a chance to vote, the Republicans would never win another election.  I’ll drink to that.  Give me 10 and here’s a nickel for your trouble, kind sir.  This ain’t been out of my pocket for the longest time. You can see the buffalo blinkin’ at the light.

And Williams to close it out.

“I ain’t never done nothin’ to nobody

I ain’t never done nothin’ to nobody, no time

So until I get somethin’ from somebody sometime

I’ll never do nothin’ for nobody, no time.”


“Sorrow concealed, ‘like an oven stopped’, must burn his heart to cinders.”


Lonnie Carter is a writer who lives in Falls Village. Email him at lonniety@comcast.net., or go to his website at www.lonniecarter.com.  

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