You can’t consider the history of “racial masking” – or the history of American show business – without talking about Bert Williams.
Born in the British West Indies, Williams joined a U.S. minstrel troupe while still in his teens. He soon teamed up with George Walker. “Williams & Walker” became one of the most popular acts in vaudeville.
Williams was light-skinned, Walker was dark... and they both performed in blackface. But Williams & Walker moved beyond cooning to a more universal, humanistic kind of comedy.
As a singer and songwriter, Bert Williams was the most popular black recording artist of the early 20th Century. Click here to hear a Williams recording from 1901(!): “She’s Getting More Like the White Folks Every Day.” (Available on this CD.)
Williams was also a gifted mime. One of his famous stage routines was a pantomime poker game. The 1916 short film below ends with Williams performing that bit. It’s a wonderful cultural artifact.
UPDATE (04/02/08): Thanks to DeAngelo Starnes for pointing to Greg Tate’s piece for EbonyJet.com today. I was unaware that a new Bert Williams biography recently came out. It’s called “Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Cork, Broadway, and the Story of America’s First Black Star,” by Camille F. Forbes.