Camilla Williams


President's Medal for Excellence (2009)
Academic Excellence Dinner
Location: Indianapolis
Presenter: Michael A. McRobbie


Williams was born in Danville, Va., on Oct. 18, 1919, the daughter of a chauffeur. Her grandfather was a singer and choir leader, and by age 8 she was singing in Danville's Calvary Baptist Church. A graduate of Virginia State College, she was teaching third grade and music in Danville schools in 1942, when she was offered a scholarship from the Philadelphia Alumni Association of her alma mater for vocal training in Philadelphia, where she studied under Marion Szekely-Freschl and worked as an usher in a theater.

She is known worldwide as the first African American soprano to perform in mainstream theaters and opera companies. In 1946, she broke the color barrier at the New York City Opera, singing the title role in Puccini's MADAME BUTTERFLY. In 1954, she became the first African American to sing a major role with the Vienna State Opera, performing her signature part of Cio-Cio-San. She performed throughout the United States and Europe with some of the world's leading opera companies until her retirement from opera singing in 1971.

Williams was the first African American voice professor at IU in 1977 and the first African American professor at Beijing's Central Conservatory. Williams retired in 1997. She was one of eight women honored in 2007 by the Library of Virginia during Women's History Month and in 2009, was saluted during a "Tribute to Camilla Williams" program by the New York City Opera and The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In September 2009, she was awarded the IU President's Medal for Excellence, one of the highest honors IU's president can bestow.

Ms. Williams died in January 2012.