This week marks 100 years since the late Camilla Williams was born in segregated Danville.
While her achievements and accolades formed a career known worldwide, her fame and legacy have over time lost their voice in her hometown community. To prepare for a major Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History exhibit honoring Williams, there will be multiple events to reintroduce the singer to Danville.
Williams’ storied career made her an icon of talent, grace and beauty but also race equality. When she stunned as the title character of “Madame Butterfly” at the New York City Opera, Williams was the first African American to receive a regular contract with a major American opera company. Her critically acclaimed performance work continued in many venues and productions of numerous titles, both nationally and internationally, and even as a cultural ambassador for the United States.
Danville stayed ever present in her life, no matter how far she traveled or how important her audiences were. The Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History along with the Danville Concert Association and the historic High Street Baptist Church hope to bring Williams back into the lives of Danville residents today through a series of events, starting with their biggest target audience: the youth.
Russell Scruggs, Danville Concert Association interim president and educational outreach coordinator has obtained a grant from the JT-Minnie Maude Charitable Trust to bring together the choirs of four of the Pittsylvania County high schools and George Washington High School for a workshop. Scruggs said the goal was to educate students of an overlooked genre while also informing them of the local history of Williams.
“We want the students to know that in a place like Danville, you can rise to the top by working hard and sticking to your educational goals and opportunities,” Scruggs said.
The workshops from 9 a.m. to noon Thursday at George Washington High School will be led by soprano Louise Toppin, whose parents were professors at Williams’ alma mater, Virginia State University. Toppin also auditioned for Williams while completing her doctoral program. She will work with the multiple choirs to teach them about the art of opera singing.
“There are plenty of opportunities for people like you from little, old Danville if you apply yourself and take advantage of it,” Scruggs added. “We want them to hear that story. That’s a good story for them to hear.”
Cedric Hairston, fellow event coordinator and Pittsylvania County Schools supervisor of specialty curricula areas, pointed out most youth do not know of Williams nor are they familiar with the opera genre.
“When you say opera music in Danville, for so many people it is a foreign language,” Hairston said. “You may like it, you may not, but you always have a respect for the value of what it is. You can never say you don’t like something until you try it in person.”
The workshops will be the first of many events meant to offer students and adults alike a new understanding and perspective on Danville and opera.
“I think we need to teach this community about her and to honor her,” Hairston continued. “I feel that there’s a responsibility that I have toward the Danville region that people are exposed to this type of genre because it might inspire them to go into this particular path.”
Williams felt that same obligation to her hometown. She regularly made time in her increasingly busy schedule to return to the River City. Though Williams was a dedicated member of Holbrook Street’s Calvary Baptist Church, she often performed at High Street Baptist Church. The church was a center of culture, arts and the local civil Rights movement, all causes important to Williams.
Toppin, who also is a scholar of the art of African American song, will perform at 7 p.m. Thursday at High Street Baptist Church. She will be accompanied by pianist John O’Brien.
The celebration this week will lead to the opening act of the museum’s major exhibit beginning January. Museum organizer Fred Motley hopes to incorporate as many voices and participants as possible to broaden the exposure and draw in bigger crowds for the exhibit, which will feature unique artifacts, including some personally gifted by Williams after she died in 2012.
“The goal is to keep alive Ms. Williams’ legacy. There are people we realize that do not know about Ms. Williams. So this is an opportunity to put a spotlight on her,” Motley stated.
Events will continue the following two days at the Historic North Theatre’s upstairs gallery space. The first will be a storytelling and witness accounts session from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Friday. Then, from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, the cast of local theater group Caswell History Speaks will perform spirituals based on history along with dances. A conversation panel amongst regional music makers will also be held to further identify Williams’ background.
The last scheduled event prior to the exhibit opening will be held at Langston High School, where Williams graduated. A program of gospel, Broadway, R&B and concert classics will be performed from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. Nov. 9.
“The concert performance will be a tribute and homage to her through a variety of genres,” Motley explained.
All events are free and open to the public, excluding the educational workshop for high school students. Reservations for the first concert at High Street Baptist Church must be made by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting Eventbrite.